Aggrieved about grievances

There are a fair few things in the HR world that have the potential to make me cross, but none more so than the traditional grievance procedure.

Grievance procedures are just not an effective way of solving problems or resolving conflict. They perpetuate an adult child culture within organisations. More importantly, they are divisive. They encourage people to form an opinion, arrive at a position, and stick with it.  The nature of the procedure means that there are only two possible outcomes.  The grievance is upheld or it is not.  The person bringing forward the issue is either right or wrong.  And employment, work, relationships, people, life, just ain’t like that.

The fundamental problem is that the processes we are legally required to follow might keep us out of trouble in the employment tribunal, but they are damaging to the overall employment relationship. In all my career I have rarely seen formal grievances result in positive outcomes.  The actual issue can become lost in the procedure itself.  We get out the policy and start ticking the boxes, and it becomes all to easy to lose sight of the person and the problem behind it.  Even when the issue is potentially serious, it immediately forces the recipient, be it company or line manager, into a defensive place.  They are not looking at whether something is wrong, why this feels like the best cause of action to the person who has put pen to paper.  Instead they are focusing on how to ensure they don’t look like have done something wrong, how to get this off the desk, how to make things look good if this end up going legal.

When mediating, one of the hardest things is moving people from the fixed positions that they have taken. Unfortunately with grievance procedures, the longer they are the more entrenched people become.  I once worked somewhere that had a ten stage grievance procedure.  Ten.  For those employees brave enough to face such a process even with the most severe of work based problems or concerns, how do you ever find a new normal in the future?  Whatever the finding, whatever the outcome, after everything has been investigated and minuted and independently reviewed and appealed and appealed.  Then what?  Practically?

I’ve seen grievance procedures used for ridiculous reasons. I’ve seen grievance procedures used maliciously.  I’ve seen people ignore or pay lip service to that recommended stage at the beginning about speaking to people informally first. I’ve seen people use them as a first resort rather than the very last resort that they really should be.  I accept that there needs to be a way for employees to raise their concerns, and that sometimes, a process is absolutely necessary.  But there are better ways, future relationship supporting ways, for many of the problems that end up in that formal space.

Here’s the thing. Very few things get resolved in writing, with investigations, with formal procedures.  Stuff gets sorted out when people have an actual conversations.  Are open and frank with each other.  When stuff that is lingering and lurking underneath gets brought to the surface.  When things aren’t allowed to fester.  Mediation is one way, although it has its limitations. The other way is HR taking an active role to encourage something less procedural instead.  Encouraging conversations.  Providing line managers with the tools and the support to better manage their people stuff and tackle problems at source.

We are stuck with the legal system and the ACAS code. We are stuck with the need to have a bloody policy.  But we can use it responsibly, and guide people appropriately – in some cases to solutions that might be better for them.  I’ve heard my fair share of line managers and HR folk alike telling people to raise a grievance when an issue is first brought to them.  This just isn’t good enough.  There have been times when I have had to tell someone that this is indeed one of their options, but I am equally prepared to tell them to think carefully about what this really means, and advocate other options first.

Whatever approach you choose to take, every single grievance your organisation receives is saying one thing in writing but  often also saying something else more subtle underneath.  Maybe something about your culture, your line manager capability, how people are feeling, at your place. So for all of my generic criticism of grievance procedures, this is perhaps their unappreciated true value.  If you can listen hard enough, and can look beyond getting through the process.

9 thoughts on “Aggrieved about grievances

  1. Hear hear!

    This is a great blog article, thank you. I always always advise the informal route first often without mentioning formal initially.

    Conversation is key!

    Managers have a right and a responsibility to sit down and have honest open dialogue with their team members. Additionally employees have a right to be heard and a responsibility to engage in those conversations.

    • Thanks for commenting Fiona. Managers do have a responsibility – but HR might also need to create the conditions in which they are able to do so. Sometimes, HR put themselves in the middle of all this stuff, and own it more than they should.

  2. Great post – I couldn’t agree more.

    Its worth bearing in mind that there is very little actual ‘law’ around grievances. You could sum it up as “employer’s should tell employees who they can talk to if they have a problem, and do their best to resolve any problems which arise”. There is absolutely no legal requirement for a complicated and formal procedure.

    The idea that there is seems to stem from the ill-fated, and unlamented, statutory dispute resolution procedures which were in force from 2004 to 3008. Prior to 2004 I hardly ever came across grievance issues in an employment law context. In those 4 years the situation was transformed and they became legalistic and complicated. But they have been gone for more than 5 years now and organisations need to move on.

    An employer that listens to employees, takes serious allegations seriously and doesn’t waste time on trivial or spiteful complaints has nothing to fear from employment law.

    • I think it is worth pointing out that it is always safest to follow the ACAS code on grievances.

      Failure to follow the code could result in a 25% uplift on any resulting cases and the EAT in Blackburn v Aldi Stores held that failure to follow the code by having a grievance appeal not heard by an impartial party not previously involved could amount to a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence, even where there is no contractual right to a grievance procedure.

      • Factually Oliver you are of course correct. But this is partly my point. If we approach every situation like it might end up in the ET (and most don’t) then we are focusing on the process, and not the solution or the person. There is risk in much of what we do around the people stuff – but there needs to be balance in all things.

    • I agree Darren with your point on the statutory disputes procedures. The panic that lead to treating every single possible issue as a grievance just in case did perpetuate some of this. Sadly though, some of this is down to HR professionals taking an overly cautious approach. I did come across someone asking advice on a HR forum recently about adhering to the 3 step process – perhaps some people still don’t know it was repealed!

      • Yes, I have fallen into the trap you were just discussing of being overly concerned with formalities. I wholeheartedly agree that the goal should be to solve the problem not to ensure you have ticked all the boxes in your process.

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