What is a grievance at work?

What to do when an employee makes a complaint.

First published on Thursday, Jun 04, 2020

Last updated on Monday, Jul 08, 2024

Most of the time employee complaints can be resolved informally, however, this isn't always the case. If this happens, you may have to start your grievance procedure.

How you handle a grievance at work is crucial, failure to handle them correctly can lead to claims being raised to an employment tribunal.

In this guide, we'll discuss the grievance procedure, how you should start handling grievances, and the possible outcomes.

What is a Workplace Grievance?

A workplace grievance is either a formal or informal complaint made by an employee towards a company or colleagues.

As an employer, you have a duty and responsibility to handle any complaints or grievances with respect.

So, you must understand all the details surrounding the grievance procedure.

What is Raising a Grievance?

Raising a grievance happens when it wasn't possible to resolve the initial grievance informally.

A grievance becomes formal when it's raised by an employee to their employer, this is typically done via a written grievance statement.

Why Would an Employee Raise a Formal Grievance?

An employee chooses to raise a formal grievance against you or the company or another employees due to a number of reasons. The main one being that it wasn't resolved in an informal manner (informal can be skipped if required).

However, grievances may be raised by an employee due to the following:

  • Changes to the terms and conditions of the employment contract.
  • The way they're treated.
  • The behaviour of a line manager.
  • Not receiving their statutory employment rights.
  • If they didn't receive a promotion they thought they were entitled to.
  • If they feel the victim of bullying, or harassment (for example sexual harassment).
  • If they feel they've been discriminated against.

Remember, you should always try and resolve a grievance between an employee and employer informally (when appropriate).

Can all Employees Raise a Formal Grievance?

Yes, all employees have the right to raise a formal grievance at any point during their employment. There is no minimum length of service required to do so.

Can Employees Who Have Left the Company Raise a Formal Grievance?

Yes, employees who have left your company can raise a formal grievance against you.

You don't have a legal requirement to investigate any grievances raised by employees who have left. However, it's best practice to do so as it could save you time and money further down the line.

Can you Dismiss an Employee Following a Grievance Claim?

No, it's against employment law to dismiss an employee after they raise a grievance.

If you choose to dismiss an employee due to a grievance, you could find yourself facing claims of discrimination, victimisation or unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal. The last thing you want to do is face a more serious claim following a simple grievance.

What Happens if You Ignore a Grievance?

Under employment law, employees have the opportunity to seek redress for any grievance. In simple terms, the employee can seek compensation for wrongdoing.

This means you must promptly investigate any grievances and not ignore them.

If you choose to ignore a grievance raised by an employer, they may feel like the only option is to resign. This may make them claim constructive dismissal against you.

What is the Formal Grievance Procedure?

A formal workplace grievance procedure is the process you follow when an employee raises a formal complaint against you or the company.

As an employer, you should have a formal procedure in place for raising a grievance. This ensures you can act quickly and consistently when required.

Ensure your formal disciplinary and grievance procedures follows the ACAS code of practice. Not following the ACAS grievance process can lead to you being penalised further down the line.

Let's discuss the process further to help make sure you follow a fair grievance procedure.

Employer Receives a Grievance Letter

The first step of the grievance procedure is the employer receiving the grievance verbally or via a grievance letter from the employee. The following should be included in the letter:

  • The details of the employee, such as name and contact details.
  • Facts and details surrounding the grievances, as well as any witnesses.
  • The clear nature of the grievance under the ACAS code of practice.

Once you receive the letter you must start the next stage of the formal procedure, the initial investigation (after a meeting with the employee).

Employer Starts the Grievance Investigation

You should always conduct further investigation into all grievances you receive. This allows you to establish all the facts before the grievance hearing takes place.

However, if the grievance relates to another employee, you should interview any employees who may have seen the incident take place.

You should keep a written record of every detail found during the investigation.

Who should carry out the initial grievance investigation?

There isn't a set rule of who should carry out the investigation. But, depending on the size of the company it should be one of the following:

  • A member of the HR department.
  • A manager (must be unrelated to the case).
  • The business owner.

Following the investigation, you may choose to hold an initial meeting with the employee.

Employer Holds a Grievance Hearing with the Employee

If the investigation requires, a grievance hearing should be held. A chair should be appointed to manage the meeting, such as a senior manager.

The grievance meeting is the opportunity for the employee to bring any evidence, relevant documents, or witness statements relating to the grievance. You must ensure the hearing is held within a reasonable time after the grievance was raised.

The meeting should go as follows:

  • The employee will explain their grievance, concerns, and complaints in full detail, this can be done via a written statement. This can help you fully understand the situation.
  • The employee will read out any evidence they have regarding the grievance, for example, witness statements. This will help to strengthen their case.
  • The employer will ask the employee for more details or any questions regarding their grievance.
  • The chair will close the meeting, but only when they feel all points have been raised fairly.

If the grievance is between two employees over alleged bullying, you may have to make adjustments so both employees don't come face-to-face. The last thing you want is an employee feeling uncomfortable due to the presence of someone else.

The employee can bring a relevant person to the meeting, such as a colleague or a trade union representative. However, they cannot answer questions for them.

Can the employee see the minutes from the grievance meeting?

Yes, the employee is entitled to receive a copy of the minutes.

You must make sure they are a clear representation of the meeting. This could be vital evidence if the claim ends in an employment tribunal.

If the employee doesn't agree with the notes, they can request a corrected version from you.

Employer Sends the Employee an Outcome Letter

Following the completion of the grievance meeting, you should send an outcome letter to the employee advising them of your decision. The outcome letter should include the following:

  • The final decision made by the employer.
  • The reasons behind the employer's decision.
  • The details surrounding the meeting, such as dates, evidence, and attendees.

You should inform the employee of your final decision without unreasonable delay. You must also be aware of all the possible outcomes following the completion of the grievance procedures.

What are the possible outcomes of the grievance hearing?

There are three possible outcomes of a grievance hearing:

  • The grievance is upheld.
  • The grievance is partially upheld.
  • The grievance is not upheld.

Depending on the nature of the grievance, each outcome will lead to a different action. For example, if an employee has raised a bullying claim and the grievance has been upheld - possible action may be to commence formal disciplinary action.

Can the Employee Appeal the Grievance Outcome?

Yes, an employee can lodge an appeal if they don't agree with the grievance decision.

They should provide you with a written appeal statement explaining why they're appealing their decision.

You should arrange a further meeting with your employee, this is known as an appeal meeting.

The appeal hearing will follow a similar process to the original meeting. You should make the employee aware they have the right to bring a colleague or a trade union official to this meeting.

What happens if the employee is unable to attend the grievance hearing?

There may be a valid reason as to why the employee wasn't able to attend the hearing, for example, illness or anxiety. If this is the case, then you should act reasonably and rearrange.

You may choose to deal with the grievance in writing, provided there is enough evidence and information available to do so.

Do Workplace Grievances End in an Employment Tribunal Claim?

No, not all grievances end in a tribunal claim. The aim of having a formal procedure for grievances is to avoid the need for a claim.

However, you should be aware that each grievance does have the potential to end in court.

Every employer's grievance procedure and policy should be included in the company handbook.

What Should You Include in Your Grievance Policy?

As an employer, you should create a clear and concise grievance policy. This should be shared with your employees at the start of their employment.

You should include the following: * Who should be contacted when an employee wants to raise a grievance. * How to contact them. * The time limits for each stage of the grievance procedure. * The time limits for when the employee will receive the grievance outcome letter. * Explain how the employee can appeal the decision if they choose to. * The time limits for when the appeal decision will be made and given to the employee, usually within five days of the decision being made.

Are There Advantages to an Employee Raising a Grievance?

There are a few advantages of a grievance being raised. For example, you may be able to improve a company process on the back of a complaint. Other benefits include: * A complaint made from an employee may be resolved quickly and informally. * An honest complaint could actually lead to working relationships being strengthened moving forwards. * You may be made aware of an issue that you didn't know existed.

Get Expert Advice on the Grievance Procedure with BrightHR

Sometimes you won't be able to resolve employee complaints informally, and a formal grievance will be raised. How you handle employee grievances is extremely important.

Failure to handle them correctly can lead to claims being raised to an employment tribunal. As well as a breakdown in the working relationship between you and the employee.

If you need any advice when employees resign, we are on hand to help. Our BrightAdvice helpline. Give our friendly and helpful team a call on 0800 783 2806 (tel: 08007832806).

Lucy Cobb

Employment Law Specialist

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