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Handling employee grievances guide

This guide expands on the details contained in the Grievance Policy and gives you practical direction on how to deal with difficult or complex areas of the grievance procedure.

What is classed as a grievance?

A grievance is a complaint by an employee about action which you, the employer has taken (or is intending to take) which may form the basis of a subsequent complaint to an employment tribunal.

A wide range of complaints are considered grievances, some of the common areas are:

  • Discrimination
  • Time off work
  • Rights after termination and other detriment
  • Relationships with work colleagues (often can be dealt with through meditation)

The grievance procedure

The standard procedure is split into three steps:

Step 1
The employee will write to you, explaining their grievance.

Step 2
You will need to invite the employee to a meeting to discuss their grievance.

Before you have this meeting, you should ensure that:

  • The employee has informed you of the basis for their grievance
  • You have had reasonable time to consider the information they provided

A colleague or trade union representative is allowed to attend the meeting with you.

After the meeting, you will need to inform the employee of your decision and of their right to appeal this if necessary.

Step 3
If the employee does wish to appeal the decision, they will need to let you know.

A further meeting between yourself and the employee will need to take place to discuss the matter further and following this meeting, you can announce your final decision.

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Post-termination grievances

An ex-employee can raise a grievance at any stage following their employment, if they only become aware of the issue at a later date. With ex-employees, it may be most appropriate to respond to their grievance in writing.

Disciplinary action and dismissal grievances

In general, these types of appeals should be dealt with through the company’s disciplinary appeals procedure. However, where the grievance is that the disciplinary action (or proposed action) has been taken on discriminatory grounds, or where the employee feels that the disciplinary action is to being taken for some reason other than your asserted reasons, the employee should submit their grievance in writing to be dealt with under the standard grievance procedure.

The right to be accompanied

Employees have a statutory right to be accompanied by a colleague or an accredited trade union official to any meetings that take place as part of the formal grievance procedure. This includes any meetings held after an employee has left employment.

It is good practice for the employee to take a companion with them, especially when you have to hold any investigation meetings as part of the formal grievance procedure. The employee may actually have a contractual right to be accompanied.

A worker who has agreed to accompany a colleague employed by the same business is entitled to take a reasonable amount of paid time off to fulfil that responsibility. This should cover the hearing and time for the companion to familiarise themselves with the case before and after the meeting.

Depending on their contract, the employee may be permitted to take someone other than a colleague or trade union official with them. If a worker is disabled, you might want to consider whether it would be fair to let them be accompanied by someone else because of this.

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Union representatives

If the employee chooses as their meeting companion, an official employed by a trade union, or a lay union official, that person must have been reasonably certified in writing by their union as having experience of, or having received training in, acting as a worker’s companion at disciplinary or grievance hearings. They will need certification to prove this.

Trade unions are supposed to ensure that their officials are trained in the role of acting as a worker’s companion. Even when a trade union official has experience of acting in the role, there may still be a need for periodic refresher training.

Employees may ask an official from any trade union to accompany them at a grievance hearing, regardless of whether the union is recognised or not. If a union is recognised in a workplace, it is good practice for workers to ask an official from that union to accompany them.

A lay trade union official is permitted to take a reasonable amount of paid time off to accompany a worker at a hearing, as long as the worker is employed by the same employer. In cases where a lay official agrees to accompany a worker employed by another organisation, time off is a matter for agreement by the parties concerned.

Applying the right

If feasible, you should allow a companion to have a say in the date and time of a hearing. If they can’t attend on a proposed date, they can suggest an alternative as long as it is reasonable and not be more than five working days after the original.

You should be informed of who the chosen companion is before the meeting date. In certain circumstances (for instance when the companion is an official of a non-recognised trade union) it can be helpful to make contact with the companion prior to the hearing.

During the hearing, the companion should be allowed to:

  • Explain the employee’s case
  • Respond on the employee’s behalf to any view expressed 
  • Confer with the employee
  • Ask witnesses questions

However, the companion has no right to:

  • Answer questions on the employee’s behalf
  • Address the hearing against the employee’s wishes
  • Prevent you from explaining your case

You could be at risk of a complaint being made to an employment tribunal, if for some reason you failed to comply with a reasonable request for a companion to attend a meeting.

Employees may also complain to a tribunal if you decided not to re-arrange a hearing to an alternative proposed date, when a companion cannot attend on the date originally suggested.

The tribunal may order compensation of up to two weeks’ pay. This could be increased if the tribunal finds that the employee has been unfairly dismissed.

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It is often useful to try mediation before entering into a formal grievance procedure and usually involves the disputed parties attending a voluntary meeting, facilitated by mediators.

The key role of the mediator is to manage the ‘process’ of the meeting, ensuring both parties have equal air time and when necessary, pose challenging questions to the parties in order to identify the real underlying issues. This takes place within a safe and impartial environment.

Mediation is complementary to formal processes and all legal employment rights are preserved for all parties.

You will need to determine whether your employee has additional rights to those covered here, depending on your contractual grievance procedure and ones under collective agreements or agreements with trade associations/federations.

This guide should have helped you to understand the basics of how to correctly deal with employee grievances, but every situation is different and there are often many factors to take into consideration. Our Empire HR advice line team of fully trained advisors are on hand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to give you practical, friendly advice, before you deal with a grievance situation with an employee. We can also provide you with more information on mediation if you require it or any other area of employment law.

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