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Grievances do more harm than good

Published: 24 Jan 2018

Emma Webster and Deborah Licorish from Yess Law, experts in employment law and resolving workplace disputes, discuss grievances at work.

Let’s start with the assumption that early resolution of workplace issues is the best outcome for you and your employer, and legal action is the worst.

The purpose of a grievance process is meant to be to resolve concerns, problems or complaints raised by employees. In practice, we find this is often not the case. Unfortunately, a grievance by its nature is usually a criticism of your employer. It is therefore often seen by the employer, rightly or wrongly, as ‘disloyal’ or an ‘attack’ on individuals or the business.

Acas recommends an initial chat to try to resolve any concerns and we agree. Frequently though, both parties recommend this potentially crucial first step is missed. Employees incorrectly think that a grievance is the only way to raise concerns. Conversely some employers wrongly refuse to consider an employee’s concerns unless they raise a written formal grievance.

We give some tips on how to constructively engage with an employer below. However remember that Acas does require that at a certain point you should raise the matter formally, in writing, and without unreasonable delay. Unreasonable failure to raise a grievance can lead to up to 25% reduction in compensation if you eventually take legal action and win a tribunal claim. That is the problem.  If all else fails, you may have to raise a grievance in any event.

The downsides of standard grievance procedures:

  • Grievances focus on what has gone wrong and contain allegations and legal threats – for example, bullying, discrimination, whistleblowing, unfairness. You may, or may not, have a legal claim, but the grievance needs to be framed as though you do. The reality may be more complicated.
  • An employer’s most common reaction is to defend itself. A response may include counter allegations such as poor performance. The scene is now set for battle.
  • Grievances often entrench the dispute or ratchet up the tension. It is difficult for both sides to backtrack unless they engage in mediation. Both sides put their energies into defending their position rather than finding a solution. Both sides dwell on what has gone wrong – they rarely consider what can be done to rectify the problem.
  • The grievance is the first step in a legal system which pits one side against the other: a route towards the employment tribunal, not resolution.
  • Grievances are rarely upheld – at least not if upholding a complaint would form the basis of a legal claim – and so matters escalate further.
  • You will then have to appeal against the grievance finding.
  • Employers spend time going through the process, but there is rarely a happy ending. You may feel that you have not been listened to, the outcome was pre-determined and anger mounts. The only justice you are going to get is in a tribunal.
  • Battle begins. Both parties spend time and money, stress levels rocket, and threats are made.
  • Many employees do not stay in their job after raising a grievance.
  • Grievances rarely achieve your objectives. Most employees want an apology, to avoid conflict and may be to leave with dignity. Employers will rarely ‘risk’ admitting fault for fear of opening themselves up to a legal claim. Apologies are often the first thing an employee wants but the last thing an employer is willing to give.

The alternatives

  • Raise your concerns early on and informally with the right person. This doesn’t rule out a grievance if you don’t get the response you need.
  • Suggest using a workplace mediator at an early stage before the relationship has deteriorated too far.
  • State the facts, rather than make legal threats. It is more effective and is less likely to produce a defensive response.

Our YESS top tips for engaging with your employer at all stages

  • Avoid being aggressive – it rarely helps – and aggression breeds aggression.
  • Avoid legal threats unless all else fails: the facts usually speak for themselves.
  • Never overstate your position e.g. “I will resign if you don’t say sorry.” How will this help if you cannot afford to resign?
  • Avoid making threats generally – they are often a sign of weakness, and rarely achieve a positive outcome.
  • Focus on solutions to your problem or concern– decide on your objectives and work out how you could achieve what you want.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the other person to try to work out their main concerns and what they may want.
  • Consider how emails or letters may be received – read them back to yourself – will they help to resolve or entrench any disagreement? Are they focussing on resolution or on what has gone wrong?
  • Ask for an off the record chat to discuss possible solutions resolution – it can break the cycle of distrust.
  • Constructive dialogue often works best and achieves as good an outcome as legal threats.

You can find more information about grievances and a sample grievance letter on this website, or contact the Working Families legal advice helpline on 0300 012 0312 or advice@workingfamilies.org.uk .


10 responses to “Grievances do more harm than good”

  1. John Hogg says:

    That’s quite a negative view of the grievance process which as a shop steward I have found is one of the few ways to get a fair and detailed response. But yes try informally first but don’t wait too long to put in a grievance as tribunals are time limited to three months from incident/decision.

  2. Camilla Palmer says:

    Grievances may be more acceptable in unionised workplaces as there is the union to protect the employee from being victimised. But I have had cases where union advised a grievance where employee wanted to keep her job and it was only when she said she would put it on hold – while another job was being considered that she was able to revive the relationship and she stayed employed. I have only seen one grievance upheld in 25 years ! But we always advise those in a union to stay with union but consider negotiation outside grievance process until negotiations fail.

  3. Nana says:

    I have became a victim of a sociopath boss. I sick individual who through the art of manipulation gets what it wants. A person without fear, morale, emotions, illogical thinking…What are my options to protect myself and my family? Go to upper management? LOL!

  4. Simon Bellinger says:

    I think whoever wrote the above deserves a medal. It makes a lot of sense to me having been through quite a bit already.
    I don’t think fixing a little knife and going over the top against machine guns is a good idea unless there is absolutely no alternative. If you don’t think much of your job or work environment it isn’t so much to move on if you have to but if you love what you do and where you do it (politics/company standards not included) then it becomes a lot more involved.

  5. Carol says:

    I’m in a very difficult situation at work and don’t know where to turn. From what I’ve read it terrifies me now making a grievance

  6. Blue says:

    I have just gone through a grievance hearing and it was a complete sham.. Not upheld not even properly investigated.. A lot of stress for nothing.

  7. Blue says:

    If your employer has an HR dept don’t trust a word they say.. They are all for the employer yet they’ll come across like your bestie…
    Are you in a union Carol?

  8. Karen says:

    I started having problems about four months ago. I emailed my manager and all he did was defend himself, whilst clearly not knowing the law. (Part time worker not included in bonus scheme because she is part time). In response to this (and other complaints) I had to put in an official grievance. Since then my work have been making my work life incredibly difficult. Guess they want me to leave because I dared to put in a grievance. In my instance I guess I am losing my job because they don’t want to listen or make reasonable adjustments

  9. Nurse says:

    Having been bullied by my manager I put in a grievance which was upheld. My manager was given a warning and then returned to work. I am currently signed off sick awaiting redeployment from a job that I otherwise loved. Wish that I had just left at the start of it all but had misplaced trust in the system.

  10. Andrea says:

    Having worked in public sector for years, I have seen some pretty strong grievance cases, and despite the evidence being overwhelming (particularly where bullying is concerned) i have never seen a case upheld. I am currently working in a toxic environment, and am considering retiring early as its becoming unbearable.