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Employee Complaints and Grievances

Handling employee grievances in the workplace can be tricky, but having the right procedures in place and following best practice can go a long way towards making things right.

It’s inevitable that disagreements will arise among employees sometimes, and how you respond to these can make all the difference. Employee complaints are known as “grievances”, and you need to know what you will do when a problem comes up.

Informal resolution

Sometimes grievances are easily dealt with. It may be that there is a problem you were unaware of, such as a health and safety concern that can be resolved simply, or that the employee is having trouble doing their job due to factors that are well within your control.

However, more serious grievances can also come up, such as disputes between employees or allegations of wrongdoing. In these potentially contentious cases, you will need to take a more careful approach to the issues, while also ensuring that you actually take action where appropriate.

Formal procedures and policies

When handling grievances, it is advisable to refer to the Acas Code of Practice for Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures. You are not legally required to do this, but the Code of Practice sets out what is considered to be the best approach to these issues, to the point that an employment tribunal may increase the amount of compensation payable to an employee if you have not followed the recommended procedures. The advice on this page is based on the relevant Code of Practice in order to explain the best approach.

Even before any grievances arise, you should ideally have a grievance policy in place based on the advice from Acas. This makes it easier to know what to do when a grievance comes up, and allows you to demonstrate that you take employee complaints seriously and treat them fairly and equally.

The following advice reflects the processes you should put in place through a grievance policy.

Handling a grievance

The first step of handling a grievance formally is to get the employee to put their complaint in writing, setting out the facts of the matter. You should then arrange a meeting for them to discuss it in more depth, preferably within five days of receiving the written grievance.

Holding a grievance meeting

Send the employee a letter stating the details of the meeting. It should say when and where the meeting will take place, as well as any evidence or witnesses which will be brought out, so the employee knows what to expect. You should also let them know about their right to be accompanied to the meeting, as well as their right to appeal if they do not agree with the outcome.

The meeting is an opportunity to discuss the grievance in detail. It should be held in private and include only the involved parties; however, the employee can be accompanied to the meeting by a trade union representative or a colleague if they want. Witnesses may also be brought in during the meeting to give evidence, and an uninvolved individual should be present to witness the meeting and take notes on what is said.

A good approach to the meeting is to ask the involved parties what kind of outcome they would like – you do not need to do exactly what they say, but it should help to establish what is it they really want from making their complaint. If there are multiple parties involved, let them state their case but try not to let things get out of hand; make sure things stay professional and keep a cool head yourself.

It should go without saying, but make sure that there is no conflict of interest regarding who deals with the issue (for example, if their complaint is about their manager, don’t put their manager in charge of handling the grievance).

Making a decision

After the meeting, a decision should be made on what will be done about the grievance. Further investigation may be required, but if not, a solution should usually be proposed within 24 hours. Either way, let the involved parties know when they can expect to hear the outcome.

You should try to reach a decision which is fair to everyone involved (if more than one person has a problem) and reasonably attempts to address the issues. Consider what has been done in the past to deal with similar problems, if they have arisen before. Likewise, you should think about the effect that any decision you make might have in the future, and how it could affect other employees.

Once you have made the decision, write to the employee who brought the grievance explaining what action is going to be taken to deal with it. If you have decided that the grievance is unfounded or that there is nothing you can reasonably do, you should let them know why. This response should also give details on how to appeal if they disagree with the outcome.

If the employee appears happy with the resolution, you should still continue to monitor the situation to make sure that your solution actually works and they remain satisfied with it.

Holding an appeal meeting

If the employee does not agree with how their grievance was resolved, they can appeal against the decision in writing. They will usually be expected to do this within five days of receiving details of the decision, and explain why they want to bring an appeal.

An appeal meeting should normally be held within five working days after receiving the written appeal from the employee. You should, as with the original meeting, write to the employee telling them when and where their appeal meeting will be, letting them know that they can be accompanied by a union representative or colleague, and telling them that the decision made in the appeal meeting will be considered final.

If there is another, more senior manager available who has not yet been involved with the grievance, they should chair the appeal meeting; if this is not possible, the manager involved must take a second look at the issue without pre-judging it. Any new aspects to the case should be examined in detail, taking a similar approach to the initial grievance meeting.

Once the appeal meeting has ended, a final resolution needs to be reached. Decide what will be done and let the employee know in writing, ideally within 24 hours.

What happens next

Even when a grievance is resolved, this does not just mean you can forget about it. You should monitor the situation to ensure that the solution is working and your employees are satisfied. You should also keep written records of grievances so you can refer to them in future if similar issues come up.

If your employee is not satisfied with the end result of the grievance process, they may decide to bring their case to an employment tribunal.