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Have Employment Grievance Procedures passed their use-by date?

By Keith Davis, from Neutrality at Work International Limited, a specialist neutrality practice based in the UK

They are intended to provide a framework for resolving issues at work but do they generally succeed in the longer term? I don’t think so in many instances.

It starts with a prospective complainant thinking through the risks. Might the matter be seen as a whinge by a disloyal member of the team which causes person offence and one which must be defended? How might this all impact on future working relationships/career? 

Next comes a consideration of the fairness of the process. Here so often lies a whole set of concerns. After all, can it really be fair?

Enter HR. Firstly, are they neutral? If they are employees or external consultants instructed by the employer, probably not in most instances.

Then comes the decision-maker(s). Most grievance procedures provide that the complainant’s line manager is blessed (!!) with this task. This is kind of okay but so many grievances are actually raised against the employee’s line manager. In that situation, hopefully another manager will be given the honour.

If the grievance requires investigation and if HR wish to stay away from any decision-making, they will need an investigator who has had absolutely no previous input or knowledge in the matter plus the grievance manager. Perish the thought that the investigator or investigation is less than perfect!

Over then to the grievance manager: a person who must be able to demonstrate competence, clarity and, oh yes, be of independent mind. That means no hint of a view or decision taken on the basis of anything outside the grievance remit including matters of internal policy etc. All relevant documentary ‘evidence’ has to be supplied in good time before the date of the grievance hearing. All ‘witnesses’ have to be lined up to enter when required and face challenges (hopefully through the Chair). Afterwards comes the decision and full written reasons together with how any appeal may be lodged. Then if there is an appeal, all the above process is reapplied but with different personnel. 

Also, in so many cases, line managers are often not perceived as independent and without influences from ‘above.’

Many managers seem not to fully appreciate how it can feel for an employee whose claims of discrimination, harassment and other very personal concerns are aired and decided within their own line management structure. It’s often just plain humiliating. In such instances, what does this do for future working relationships?

And it all ends with a judgment. Oh dear! So, the one against whom the decision goes is likely to feel that their trust and confidence in the employer’s fairness is dented if not worse. This often leaves the disaffected ‘party’ having to make a difficult choice.

Sadly, some use a grievance process to case-build.

Some find the process so stressful that they take the well-trodden path to seemingly endless fit notes with the original grievance being converted to a complaint of stress, anxiety depression etc often with some delays in the process before they feel able to continue.

From an employer’s perspective, it can feel like standing at the edge of one minefield after another, just waiting for the inevitable unintended procedural slip to be seized upon on the back of management time/effort being diverted to avoid an employment tribunal claim.

And when it comes to grievances raised by senior executives or directors, how on earth can a standard grievance procedure be applied to them?

In so very many instances, the above process promotes two-sided adversarial dramatics which few enjoy and which are getting increasingly legalistic. What a shame!

Is there an alternative? Yes, you bet there is! Refer the issues to a truly independent accredited mediator and ask them to explore an agreed outcome within weeks in which everyone comes away with their dignity and self-esteem intact. This informal, alternative and non-judgmental process offers confidentiality, apologies or statements of regret and avoids the need for any of the drama described above – and at a fraction of the cost. Closure can be formal or informal and permits everyone to get on with their lives.    

Keith Davis heads up Neutrality at Work International Limited, a specialist neutrality practice based in the UK. He is an employment lawyer and Civil Mediation Council registered and accredited mediator.   

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