“Confronting the difficult while it is still easy” – thoughts on handling employee grievances
Since the introduction of the statutory grievance procedures (now defunct), the management of employee complaints has become an industry – an industry that employs HR professionals, consultants, investigators and lawyers. And to what end? How often do we put our pens down on a grievance outcome letter and feel that it has solved the problem? Rarely I’d say. The link between grievances and legal claims has resulted in an increase in formal complaints by employees and an understandable reluctance to consider alternative routes for resolution.
Was it different in the past? Perhaps. Sometimes the relationship between a union and employer was a channel for informal resolution – catching things before they went too far or became intractable. The union would often distance themselves from nuisance complaints – aware of the need to maintain a relationship of trust with the employer so that real problems could be given attention. Outside of a unionised environment, the informal stage of a grievance procedure was still important – not just “step one” in a multi-stage process that was to be followed slavishly.
Of course it is vital to have a process that allows for objective scrutiny of managerial decisions and behaviour. Grievance procedures have given thousands of women a pathway to resolve #Metoo complaints that might never have been resolved without the rigor of independent assessment. And we must adhere to the ACAS code to avoid an adverse impact on damages in the event of a successful claim.
But grievance processes are often unnecessarily protracted. They can involve time and effort that is completely disproportionate relative to the seriousness of the complaint. We seem to struggle to distinguish between difficult cases (in which formality is a vital mechanism for securing justice for both the complainer and the accused) – and the petty gripes and squabbles that occur in every workplace. And in serious discrimination and harassment complaints, the need to tick boxes on a process map can result in a loss of focus on dignity, humanity and authenticity. Frankly, a grievance can become a weapon in a game played by employer and employee – and in which there will be no real winner.
Is there a solution? Can we “confront the difficult while it is still easy” (as the old Chinese proverb goes)? Perhaps we need to stop and think before heading down that well trodden path. Is the complaint really one that requires formal intervention? Is the process capable of giving the employee what they want? If we know from the outset that it can’t – is there another way to address the issue? Can we take more time to establish whether protagonists can be encouraged to see each other’s perspectives in a less confrontational context? Through training can we disseminate the principles of mediation, restorative justice and conflict resolution to give managers the tools to tackle issues early and with a genuine wish to find a solution – not as an alternative to the formal process, but as a means to avoid polarised positions and intractable disputes.
To be clear – I do not for a moment think that an informal approach will resolve every case. As I have said, formal grievance procedures are rightly part of our legal framework, but just sometimes the tram-tracks that they run on prevent us all, lawyers and HR professionals alike, from doing our best work. So watch this space for some further thoughts on handling employee complaints.
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