Managing Grievances in the Workplace – Part 1
In a series of articles Joe Culbert, Associate Partner with Stratis Consulting, reviews and discusses managing grievances in the workplace. Each article covers a specific aspect from informal resolution to formal resolution and finishes with highlighting some ‘watch-outs’ in relation to application when it comes to managing grievance in the workplace.
First up Joe takes a closer look at prevention, fair procedures (the cornerstones of grievance management), informal resolution and mediation.
The business world continues to dynamically evolve and change but within this inevitable state of flux there are some ever present constants. None more so are the challenges of people management and the inevitability that within organisations, grievances will invariably arise.
The requirement for organisations to equip themselves to deal with such instances is fundamental in the effort to sustain harmonious workplaces and the obvious advantages which accrue from that. Grievances can take many different forms but can be broadly classified as complaints from an employee or a group of employees concerning terms and conditions of employment, work practices, working environment or working relationships.
The importance of managing them efficiently and effectively plays a crucial role, not only in mitigating their potential damage to employee morale and productivity, but also in protecting against potential legal and compensatory exposures.
This series of articles looks at some of critical elements of grievance management and in doing so may provide a useful checklist for organisations engaged in the assessment of existing processes and practices. Understanding how to handle procedures consistently prevents mistakes and errors that could negatively impact both employees and employers.
One important ‘caveat’ for the reader here is that these articles are confined to grievance management specifically, notwithstanding that this is often interchangeably addressed with the management of discipline cases and the frequent incorporation of both subjects into one policy. Nor, importantly, do they address in any detail procedures relating to the management of bullying and harassment which are separate, and which require their own distinctive treatment in accordance with legislation.
Anticipation and Intervention
Of course, the mantra of prevention being better than cure is, as often the case, the starting point. Staving off potential and/or emerging grievances in a proactive and positive way not only guards against expensive and time-consuming complaints but serves to improve morale, retain valuable talent and reduce absenteeism.
Key to this is the organisation’s culture and in particular the fostering of a working environment that encourages and respects all employees. Instilling a culture in which such values are lived and adhered to creates the fundamental platform. Challenging and confronting inappropriate behaviour supported by policies and values which are inculcated into daily practice plays a big role in this. Being clear about expectations as regards conducts and being able to demonstrate a consistency in application goes a long way, for example, towards an employer being able to defend itself against being held vicariously liable for acts or omissions of its employees which occur in the course of employment.
The role and development of Front-Line Managers in being able to effectively communicate, coach, provide feedback and recognise good work contributes greatly to creating the right conditions for a harmonious workplace atmosphere. As managers they need to have the skills and confidence to intervene at an early stage so that issues do not fester or intensify, thereby preventing escalation or broadening of matters into full-fledged serious grievances.
Fair procedures are the cornerstone of grievance management. For both legal and business efficiency purposes, proper procedures are essential to ensure that grievances are handled in accordance with the principles of natural justice and fairness. It is important that such procedures are not only in place, but that they have been clearly communicated and understood within the organisation, and that employees have ready access to them whereby complaints may be fairly and sensitively addressed.
They provide the basis for both transparency in the handling of workplace problems and consistency in the way these are addressed. They should aim to resolve employee problems as quickly as possible. They demonstrate how a company is committed to handling disputes legally and fairly and they help address actual workplace complaints and disputes before such issues become a matter for the courts to decide. Failure to have them in place and to execute in accordance with their provisions exposes companies to claims from employees to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) and to other legal fora with the risk of potential expensive compensation orders being imposed.
A review of the application of some elements of fair procedures in the context of formal grievance management follows below. However, before diving in, we should first address the too-often overlooked advantages of ‘informal’ resolution.
The rationale of attempting to resolve issues as quickly as possible and at the points of contact nearest their source is rarely if ever disputed. Nevertheless, employers too frequently underestimate the advantages of handling issues early and informally before they escalate into serious disputes that require the use of formal protracted procedures and/or wider employment relations involvement. Far too many grievances proceed directly to the formal route.
Attempts should, where possible, be made to resolve grievance issues between the employee concerned and their immediate manager as early as possible in the process. The informal process (which needs to form part of the organisations procedures), creates and leverages opportunities for disagreements or complaints to be resolved quickly and privately. If managed well, this can frequently be done on a less restrictive basis that does not place serious demands on management time.
The informal route can often allow for more flexibility in how an issue is handled from the employee’s perspective, as well as avoiding the imposition of stricter protocols or involving wider numbers of people, which may otherwise pertain when formal investigations are being conducted. In addition to being speedier, it has much greater potential to avoiding the polarisation which often occurs as positions between employees become further entrenched as they go through the formal process. Formal procedures carry much greater propensity for outcomes which are likely to disappoint one if not more of the parties and the resultant challenges of managing dissatisfied employees which emanates from that.
There are a few points worth noting in terms of the successful deployment of the informal route. The first is the commitment by all parties to resolution. One needs a sense that the employee is committed to having the issue resolved and one must be seen to have a vested interest in resolving the issue. Another is to avoid the offer of informal process being incorrectly interpreted by the employee as meaning that the employer is seeking to evade the issue or is seeking to not treat it with the same level of seriousness as would apply in a formal procedure.
Assuring the employee that the informal process does not prevent the issue being subsequently processed through the formal process can go a long way towards managing that. Finally, the employee should not feel that they are being pressured or unduly coaxed to accept an informal process. While the informal route carries many advantages in terms of exploring resolution, the choice on how the matter should be processed rests with the employee.
A word of note is advanced regarding mediation. The increasing use of mediation by organisations as a method for resolving workplace issues and the increasing importance placed upon it by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) are testament to the potency of this process as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism. Working hand in hand with informal resolution, this separate, alternative method of resolution where both parties voluntarily accept a trained impartial, neutral mediator to help them attain a mutually acceptable agreement, can be particularly effective in addressing grievances which involve or are based on interpersonal conflict.
As a voluntary process with a track record of success, and where failure to agree does not impinge on an employee’s right to subsequently pursue their issues through formal procedures, organisations should give increasing consideration to the benefits of promoting this as an option for employees where grievances are raised.
In part two of this series, we will take a closer look at the formal process for managing grievances in the workplace.
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Disclaimer: The information in this article is for practical guidance only and does not constitute legal or specific case advice. The answers to specific situations will vary depending on the circumstances of each case. This is not a substitute for specific professional advice relevant to individual circumstances facing your business.