How to Deal with Work Disputes and Problems

Our guide to work disputes explains all about legal issues in the workplace and your rights.

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Unfortunately, there are a variety of problems which can arise in the workplace, and it can sometimes be hard to know how to respond in these situations. Knowing your rights under employment law is a huge help.

All kinds of situations can be a cause for concern when you are trying to do your job. These may include:

  • the way you are treated at work or the behaviour of other employees
  • the terms and conditions of your contract
  • tasks you are being asked to do at work
  • conditions in the workplace

Fortunately there are a number of rules in place which mean that you should be able to take action if you are having genuine issues at work.

Discrimination

It is illegal for your employer or other workers to discriminate against you at work. Discrimination is when you are treated less favourably due to one or more of what are termed ‘protected characteristics’.

To find out more about the definition of discrimination and what to do if you have encountered it in the workplace, please read our guide to discrimination.

Health and safety

Your employer is required by law to ensure that your workplace is as safe as possible, and that any risks are recognised and minimised. Health and safety covers all kinds of workplace hazards, ranging from keeping people safe around dangerous machinery to maintaining a comfortable temperature in an office; and if your employer does not take it seriously there could be severe repercussions.

For everything you need to know about your employer’s responsibilities regarding health and safety in the workplace, take a look at our health and safety section.

When work comes to an end

Leaving your job can be unpleasant, particularly if you do not agree with your employer’s approach or feel you were unfairly forced out. If you think your employer acted illegally in terminating your role, you may be able to make a claim.

To find out more about unfair dismissal and redundancy issues, take a look at our page about work coming to an end.

If you want more information about appealing against an unfair dismissal, watch this video from employment law specialist Jayne Nevins, who will talk you through the process of making a claim.

Grievances

The best thing to do if you have a problem with something which has happened at work is to speak to your manager. Approaching an issue informally is a good first step, as those causing it may not realise that they are creating problems.

However, if your problem is not dealt with to your satisfaction following an informal discussion, the next step you should take is to address it formally by raising a grievance.

Your employer should have a grievance process in place to explain exactly what you need to do if you wish to raise a formal complaint. This might be found in your contract or in policy documents or a staff handbook, and your employer is legally required to make this information available to you.

Generally, your employer should follow the guidelines set out by Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) when dealing with grievances. Acas recommends the following procedure:

  • You send a letter to your employer setting out the details of your grievance and any suggestions you have for how they might be resolved. Make sure you put the date on the letter and keep a copy of it.
  • Your employer arranges a meeting in which your grievance can be discussed. This should be arranged for a time or place which is reasonable for you to attend.
  • You meet with your employer and discuss the grievance and what can be done about it. You have the right to bring a supportive colleague or a trade union representative to the meeting to help you make your case.
  • Your employer sends you a letter explaining what they have decided to do about the grievance in light of the meeting.

If you do not agree with the decision your employer has made, the next step is to officially contest their solution by responding with another letter. State that you are appealing against the decision and explain why you disagree with it.

Your employer will then be required to arrange a new meeting, which will ideally be handled by a more senior member of the organisation. Again, you may bring a co-worker or union representative with you to the meeting.

Afterwards, you will receive a letter from your employer setting out their final decision on the matter. If you still do not agree with their proposed method of handling your grievance, then you may be able to seek help from outside the company. This may take the form of mediation, or you could take your case to the employment tribunal.

It is important to bear in mind that there is a time limit for making an employment tribunal claim, so you should not delay if you are unsatisfied with your employer’s response.

Disciplinary proceedings

If your employer is displeased with the quality of your work, how you act in the workplace, your attendance or any other serious issue, they may begin disciplinary proceedings against you. They might discuss their concerns with you informally beforehand but they are under no obligation to do so.

The formal disciplinary process your employer uses should be freely available in writing to all staff. They should explain the circumstances which might lead to disciplinary action being taken, and set out the process that will be used.

The disciplinary procedure laid out by your employer should abide by the following steps:

  • You should receive a letter explaining the issue at hand.
  • Your manager should arrange a meeting (known as a ‘disciplinary hearing’) in which the issue can be discussed and you can put forward your side of the story.
  • A disciplinary decision should be made by your employer regarding the action which will be taken over the problem.
  • You can appeal against the decision in writing if you feel that it is unfair.

If you appeal, another hearing should be held, ideally led by someone who has not formerly been involved with your disciplinary proceedings. After this, your employer will make a final decision on the issue and inform you of it in writing.

The disciplinary hearing is your chance to explain yourself and provide any evidence that you feel proves you are in the right or puts your actions in a more favourable light. If you mention anything during the hearing which your employer feels that they need to look into, the hearing may be rearranged for a later date so they have time to investigate.

You have the right to bring someone with you to a disciplinary hearing. You can bring a colleague or a trade union official or union representative, as long as you let your employer know beforehand. They may help you to summarise your case and support you during the meeting, though they cannot answer questions from your employer on your behalf.

In rare cases, you may be suspended from work while disciplinary proceedings are ongoing. If your contract states that your employer can suspend you without pay, this may happen, but otherwise your suspension will usually be on full pay. Your employment rights still apply during your suspension.

Your employer’s decision on what to do could result in any number of outcomes. They may decide that you are not at fault and drop the matter. On the other hand, they may issue a written warning, demote you or even dismiss you from your job. Alternatively, they may decide on less harsh measures, such as further training for your role.

Early Conciliation

If you are not satisfied with the outcome of your employer’s formal grievance or disciplinary procedures, you have the option of seeking what is known as Early Conciliation.

Early Conciliation is a service offered by Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) and is the next recommended step if you’ve had an issue at work which your employer has not dealt with to your satisfaction.

Early Conciliation is a free service which involves you and your employer discussing the issue with an independent representative from Acas, who will then attempt to find a solution which is acceptable to both of you. Initial discussion will usually take place over the telephone but further in the process, meetings may be arranged with the goal of reaching an agreement between worker and employer on how the dispute should be tackled.

If you and your employer are able to agree on a course of action through Early Conciliation, you will both sign a settlement which explains what has been decided. This settlement is legally binding, so both worker and employer must do whatever has been agreed.

Early Conciliation was introduced in an attempt to reduce the number of workers taking their employers to an employment tribunal. While you do not have to undergo Early Conciliation, you must at least contact Acas to discuss your dispute before you are able to take your employer to an employment tribunal, should this be your chosen route.

The Acas website has more information about early conciliation, including how to apply.

Employment tribunals

If you have exhausted the other avenues of complaint available to you, you may decide to take your employer to an employment tribunal.

Employment tribunals are independent bodies which deal with claims by workers who feel that they have been treated in an unfair or illegal way at work. The tribunal will decide whether your employer was in the wrong regarding your dispute.

Time limits for employment tribunal applications

There are strict time limits for applying to the tribunal, so it is important that you do not delay if you think you have a claim. In most cases, the time limit is set at three months from when the issue in question last took place. For example, if you are taking your employer to a tribunal as they often neglect to pay your wages on time, you must apply to the tribunal within three months of their most recent failure to do so. If your case concerns dismissal from your job, you need to apply within three months of your employment coming to an end.

Since you will need to speak to Acas and potentially undertake Early Conciliation before you can apply to an employment tribunal, the time limit is ‘paused’ while you do so. Once Acas is no longer dealing with your claim, the clock begins ticking once more.

Employment tribunal time limits are extremely important and can be quite complicated, so it is advisable to seek professional advice on your specific circumstances to ensure that you are not caught out.

Employment tribunal fees

You must pay a fee when applying for your case to be heard at an employment tribunal, along with another fee for the hearing. There are two kinds of claim - type A and type B - which require different fees to be paid.

Type A claims include cases relating to unpaid wages or redundancy pay, breach of contract, or annual leave. It costs £160 to make an application for a type A claim and £230 to attend a hearing.

Type B claims include cases relating to unfair dismissal, equal pay disputes, discrimination and whistleblowing. It costs £250 to make an application for a type B claim and an eye-watering £950 to attend a hearing.

If you cannot afford to pay these fees, you may be able to get financial help from the government to do so, under what is known as the fee remission system. This may cover part or all of the cost of the fees, depending on your income and other factors. You may also be reimbursed for these fees by your employer if you win your case.

Submitting your claim

You can submit your claim to the employment tribunal online. When your application is received, your employer will be contacted by the tribunal so they can give their side of the story before a hearing is conducted. If they fail to respond within 28 days, an employment judge may make a decision based on your claim without a hearing taking place.

If your employer responds to your claim, an employment tribunal hearing must take place. A judge may meet with you beforehand to discuss when the hearing should be, how long it is likely to take, and any other decisions which need to be made. You will subsequently receive a letter saying when and where your tribunal hearing will be.

Attending the tribunal hearing

The hearing itself involves a panel or a judge listening to both you (or someone representing you) and your employer explaining each side of the story. You will need to provide any evidence you have to support your statements. After this, they will ask you and your employer questions to clarify the issue, before finally making a decision on your case.

Usually, you will hear the tribunal’s judgment that day, but in more complex cases they may send you a letter a few days later.

Employment tribunal decisions

If you win your case, the tribunal will tell your employer what they have to do in order to make things right. Your employer may have to pay you compensation (as well as your tribunal fees), make changes to your working conditions, or even give you your job back.

The amount of compensation you will receive depends on a number of different factors relating to your situation and job, and what kind of claim you made. However, there are usually upper limits for how much compensation can be paid to you, except in cases of discrimination. You may receive additional compensation if your employer fails to do anything the tribunal told them to do.

Appealing the judgment

If you don’t win your case, there are still options available to you. If you think there were problems with the way the tribunal’s conclusion was reached, if you were not at the hearing, or if new evidence has come to light relating to your case, you can write to the tribunal office to request a review. You must contact them within 14 days of hearing the decision.

It is important to note that a review will only be undertaken if there is reason to believe that the tribunal made a mistake or that any facts or evidence were missed which may have made a difference. You cannot ask for a review simply because you disagree with their ruling.

Alternatively, if you think that the tribunal made a legal error when making their decision, you can contact the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which rules on points of law relating to employment tribunal cases.

You must usually contact the Employment Appeal Tribunal within 42 days of receiving the tribunal’s judgment. However, there are exceptions if you received the reasons for the tribunal’s judgment separately from the judgment itself.

If you asked for written reasons during the hearing, or requested them within 14 days of receiving the judgment, or if the tribunal chose to initially withhold the reasons for its decision and supplied them in writing afterwards, the deadline will instead be 42 days after you receive the reasons.

It costs £400 to appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal to review the tribunal’s decision, and a further £1,200 is payable if another hearing results from it. Justice.gov.uk has information explaining how to submit an appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

Need help with employment disputes?

If you are caught up in a dispute with your employer, a settlement agreement could be the best solution to settle things. DAS Law’s Settlement Agreement service can help you to put one together with minimal difficulty, allowing both you and your employer to put the matter behind you.


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