It’s not just what you say, but also the way that you say it!
How you respond to individual grievances will undoubtedly vary depending upon their nature, size and complexity. But if you don’t have much experience in dealing with workplace grievances, or there have been very few grievances within your business, you may not know what might cause employees to complain.
This post will, therefore, provide you with:
- A summary of the types of grievances that you might encounter;
- An explanation of the process you should follow, in response to such claims;
- Details of not only ‘what’ you should do, but also, ‘how’ you should do it, to ensure that you respond in a fair and compliant manner.
An employee’s ‘grievance’ could be that they:
- would prefer to sit at a desk that was closer to the window, as their working environment is too dark; or
- have used up all of their annual leave allowances, and want to go to a top sporting event, their friends have given them a ticket, but their manager won’t let them go; or
- inform you that one of the company’s customers frequently swears at them and that no manager is ever willing to advise the client that their behaviour is unacceptable, or apologise to them [the employee] for what they experienced; or
- believe that you have unfairly overlooked them for promotions within the company and that less qualified candidates (in their opinion) have progressed ahead of them. Additionally, their manager won’t provide them with an explanation as to why;
- complain that whenever team members in another department have to work late, their manager gets takeaway pizzas delivered in for them, whereas their manager doesn’t even say thank-you; or
- claim that their manager has been bullying and harassing them for more than two years and has made their life so unbearable that they have started to have suicidal thoughts.
These grievances or complaints vary greatly both in their detail and in their seriousness.
There is a big difference between a grievance about a manager refusing an employee’s ‘request for a half day’s leave at short notice’, and another employee’s complaint about their manager bullying them, sexually harassing them, or both over a significant period’.
Also, it is not just ‘what’ is said in response, that is important, but also the ‘way’ in which the organisation or a specific manager says it.
Part of the grievance process — where, at the very least, the employee should feel that they’ve had a fair hearing — is about responding to the employee’s concerns.
Therefore any response needs to be proportionate. However, some key points apply to how managers within every organisation should respond to any grievance. You, the manager, should be:
- (sufficiently) thorough, and
Consequently, whatever the nature of the grievance, and, however much it upsets, disappoints or angers you, you need to ensure that you follow the correct policy or process.
In the first instance if someone complains/grieves about something, try to resolve the issue informally.
Informally means ‘without formality’. There is no need for formal meetings, formal letters, representation, minutes, management time, etc., etc. So, it is no surprise that if you can achieve a resolution in this way, it is a more positive outcome than having to adhere to [more] formal procedures.
That doesn’t mean giving in to demands that have no merit; following inconsistent approaches; or, agreeing to actions that would either damage the company or only benefit the individual lodging the complaint.
But if you can arrive at a mutually acceptable solution that is not only better for the individual raising the grievance, but also better for the business as well, then everybody wins.
The employee knows that you have listened to them; other employees see that you have followed a fair process, and that should they have a grievance in the future, then they will be more confident that you will also treat them fairly. Employee engagement — which we will explore further in another post — will increase accordingly.
If the employee decides that they want you to consider the matter formally, the ‘way’ in which you respond should also be similar. That is:
- Be a good listener: Try not to interrupt the employee when they are talking, however much you disagree with what they are saying. Allowing them to explain why they are aggrieved is often the first step in dissolving the complaint and thereby resolving the issue.
- Ask questions: While it’s always a good idea to plan what questions you would like answers to before the meeting, any questions you ask must relate to what the employee has said/is saying, to reinforce the point further that you are listening to what they have to say. Your questions should be ‘open’ to encourage the employee to speak openly and to demonstrate that you haven’t pre-judged the situation.
- Don’t argue: Remain calm. Ask questions or present information persuasively, to minimise any further resistance from the employee. Don’t allow the employee to draw you into an argument, and maintain control of the interview by calling for an adjournment to enable the employee to calm down if needed.
- Make sure you understand: Adapt your style of questioning to the employee and do everything to know what they are saying, even if they aren’t presenting their case most articulately. Employees will undoubtedly find formal grievance hearings stressful and potentially emotional, so give them the time they need to get their point across. Ask your questions skilfully and re-word or re-phrase if you are not getting the information that you need to consider the matter appropriately. If you don’t get the information you need — as the interviewer — it will be your fault for not asking the right questions in the right way, rather than the employee for not understanding you.
- Treat all employees with respect: Ridicule or comments that undermine an employee’s concerns can be devastating — and have no place in modern workplaces. If you attempt to make an employee feel foolish, you will destroy the lines of communication and trust. Let others save face and retreat gracefully. Criticising and belittling employees in front of others should also be avoided for the same reasons.
- Let the employee know when to expect a response from you: The employee must know how long it will take for you to reach a decision. While you may not know how long it will take you (or someone else) to investigate the matters, give the employee a provisional date for your response, and advise them that if this changes, you will keep them posted.
- Gather the facts: If you are unable to decide during the meeting, investigate what the employee has said; check the situation; refer to relevant documentation and, where appropriate, witnesses who will be able to confirm (or otherwise), the employee’s version of events or position. Be very careful if you consult with higher levels of management before making a final decision, as you may, unwittingly, be prejudicing their ability to view the case impartially, should they be called upon to hear an appeal against your decision.
- Decide: Once you make a decision (even if it is unpopular), stick to it firmly unless somebody presents new evidence that you need to consider.
- Explain your decision: As long as you have examined the employee’s grievance thoroughly, the decision you reach should be well reasoned and backed up with a thought process that you can, and should explain to the employee. There is no guarantee that they will accept your decision, and may subsequently appeal, but don’t let this impact the conclusion you have reached. Also, another manager may not agree with you when they hear the employee’s appeal. Their viewpoint doesn’t mean that you were wrong in the decision that you reached — as long as you were fair and followed due process — they may just have reached an alternative view or they may have received further information that you weren’t given.
- Thank the employee: Thank the employee for being prepared to raise the issue — whatever the outcome. If you/management get the reputation for dealing with such matters fairly and consistently, future problems are more likely to be raised informally, thereby allowing quicker resolution of issues before they become more significant.
- Appeals: Under the ACAS’ Code’, an employee must inform their employer of the grounds for their appeal in writing. If they don’t do this, the employer should ask them (verbally or in writing) to do so, so that it can adequately consider, and if necessary investigate, the issues in advance of the appeal hearing. However, if the employee refuses or fails to provide the grounds for their appeal, the employer should hold the hearing and notify the employee of the outcome without unreasonable delay. If the case ultimately went to an Employment Tribunal and they (the employee) won, but the Tribunal decided that the employee had unreasonably failed to follow the ACAS’ Code’, the Tribunal could reduce any award made to them by 25%.
- Post-employment grievances: While a former employee may write to you about complaints relating to when they were your employee, you (the employer) are not required to follow the formal grievance procedure or give any right to appeal. That is not to say that you shouldn’t try to settle the dispute or answer the issues, but the situation is not one where you need to follow the same procedure as if they had not left the company. Also, how you respond to them, should not affect any tribunal decision relating to any alleged inappropriate action by you — e.g. constructive dismissal or breach of contract — before they left.
- Your response to an employee grievance should be proportionate to its seriousness.
- Even if the employee doesn’t comply fully with the ACAS’ Code’, you, the employer should ensure that you do.
- Respond to any grievances calmly, considerately, impartially, thoroughly and promptly.
- It’s not just ‘what’ you do, but also the ‘way’ in which you do it.
- While possibly tricky, accept the fact that where you have employees who are prepared to raise issues is a positive sign for your business (albeit that the underlying cause of the grievance may not be!)