Work-related complaints

A complaint from a member of staff is commonly called a grievance in HR and employment law parlance. Employers are required to have a process in place for the proper and prompt handling of work-related staff grievances.

Work-related complaints

Information for
Employment Rights
Date Published
23rd January 2022

This is not a comprehensive or complete guide to work-related complaints . These are complex, detailed areas of law and the specific facts and circumstances of each complaint are also highly relevant. 

Please keep this in mind and accept this as an overview.

Of course, all we really want brewing with the return to the work-place are tea, great ideas and enthusiasm for the year’s goals. However, work-related complaints are a possibility and should not be ignored if they do arise.

A complaint from a member of staff is commonly called a grievance in HR and employment law parlance. Employers are required to have a process in place for the proper and prompt handling of work-related staff grievances.

Here is a summary of why this is important and a list of the key elements of a reasonable grievance process.

  • What is a grievance:

    A grievance is a verbal or written complaint, from a member of staff, about a work-related matter that relates to them personally. The subject matter of a grievance may also affect others.

    • Terms and conditions of employment or changes to them such as weekly working pattern, job title, seniority, duties, workload, work allocation, pay, place of work and working conditions;
    • Unfair treatment such as an ostensibly unjustified failure to give a promotion or to offer access to benefits available to other staff; or being singled out for selection for redundancy in circumstances that do not seem to be justified; or
    • Bullying by management or colleagues.
  • Who can make a grievance:

    Employees and workers can make a grievance.  

    It is unusual for a grievance process to be available for use by other types of individuals in the workplace, however an employer may have done so in the documents it issues such as the contract, Staff Handbook or Grievance Policy.

  • How do I know if a staff member has made a grievance as opposed to wanting to let off steam and no more:

    The simplest way for an employer to enable staff to have their work-related grievances resolved, is to have a written Grievance Policy in place. Employers need to let staff know that it exists and provide them with easy access to it. Staff will then be in a position to use it.

    Employers need to remember that a grievance is a verbal or written complaint about a work-related matter. Employers need to be alert because staff may not use the specific words ‘grievance’ or ‘complaint’, even if they are making a grievance and want to have it resolved.  

    Ideally, the workplace Grievance Policy includes an informal stage, as well as a formal stage, in the event that an individual does not intend to make a formal grievance. However, an employer should not make assumptions or trivialise a complaint and the grievance and the manner in which the staff wish to have it dealt with, should be recorded in writing. Asking staff how they would like the matter to be dealt with, will help give an employer a steer.

What is the benefit of having a Grievance Policy in place

  • It is a potential means of avoiding legal claims against the employer:

    Staff are entitled to make complaints about work-related matters, and to have these complaints dealt with promptly by the employer. If an employer does not have a Grievance Policy, staff will not know if or how they can complain within the work-place, and an unresolved complaint could lead to a legal claim against the employer. With a grievance process in place, you have a chance to resolve the complaint internally.

    The employer’s duty is to provide a means of prompt redress to staff, and so an alternative to a Grievance Policy, is professional assistance from an external HR or employment law resource if and when grievances are made. However, opting for professional assistance as the only and first port of call, potentially deprives staff of knowing what to do if they have a work-related complaint. Therefore, employers are usually well-served by having a Grievance Policy and seeking professional assistance with implementing its provisions, if required.

  • To help morale and staff retention:

    Staff complaints can alert employers to problems within the work-force which can in fact be resolved satisfactorily. A content work-force will be more loyal and productive in both good and difficult economic times.

  • Consistency - to ensure that all staff complaints are dealt with using the *same process:

    A Grievance Policy and/ or an external professional HR resource, offers a clear road map for dealing with complaint(s) whenever they arise. Employers can thus avoid justified allegations that they handle complaints inconsistently depending on whether they like or dislike a particular member of staff, or that they discriminate against particular group(s).

    *Employers will need to be flexible by making reasonable adjustments to the process if a grievance is made by a disabled person (as defined in the Equality Act 2010). For example, staff with dyslexia may have difficulty, or be unable to engage with a process that relies heavily on written material. In such an instance, the individual should be invited to give input into what alternatives or supplements will assist them access the process effectively. Reasonable adjustments may include more use of verbal correspondence and audio recordings as a supplement to written material.  Making an accommodation for staff is a reasonable and prudent derogation from the black and white letter of a Grievance Policy.

  • Familiarity breeds competence and saves time:

    If an employer has a clear and well-known road map to follow each time staff make a complaint, they will develop an understanding of the procedure and refine their knowledge of what works well to avoid, limit and resolve work-related complaints.

  • A good practice that employers are expected to follow:

    A mechanism for dealing with work-related complaints is an established and expected part of employment practice, especially given the HR, and other resources available to employers. It is in fact a legal requirement that employees are provided with details of both whom they can apply to if they have a grievance and how a grievance should be made.

    As referenced above, a well implemented grievance process could help reduce the instances of legal proceedings against an employer. Additionally, a failure to follow a reasonable grievance process can haunt an employer in the event of staff pursuing and winning an Employment Tribunal claim. This is because an employer can be ordered to pay an additional sum of compensation to staff where the employer either failed to provide a means of resolving a grievance, or where the grievance process followed was not reasonable.

The reasonable formal grievance process in 7 steps

A grievance is made
The employer acknowledges receipt of the grievance, schedules a grievance meeting and gives the member of staff notice of the grievance meeting
The grievance meeting takes place
The employer investigates the grievance and the grievance outcome is given in writing, with details of the right of appeal and how to exercise it
The member of staff appeals the decision if the outcome is not accepted
The employer convenes an appeal meeting
The employer issues the member of staff with the appeal outcome

Take away

Grievances need not be seen as negative; they may in fact diagnose weak spots in the work-place that are capable of a mutually satisfactory remedy. Have a written Grievance Policy in place to deal with staff grievances.

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