An employer’s guide to taking grievances seriously

Dealing with employee grievances can sometimes seem like a thankless drain on a business’s management and resources. But a prompt investigation could uncover inappropriate behaviour or poor management that needs to be nipped in the bud, avoiding bigger problems down the line and reputational risk for the organisation.

Employers should comply with the Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures (the Code), which sets out the basic steps and principles for dealing with a grievance.

‘While this encourages employers to ‘have a quiet word’ or to use mediation where appropriate, investing time and resources in dealing with a grievance can pay off in the longer term,’ explains Paula Stuart, a Partner in the Employment team with Geoffrey Leaver Solicitors. ‘An informal approach could backfire as the employee may feel their concerns have not been taken seriously and this in itself could be an act of discrimination.’

Paula Stuart sets out why employers should take grievances seriously from the outset and how to take a proportionate approach, as well as highlighting the legal protection given to some employees who raise a grievance.

When is a grumble a grievance?

If an employee raises a grievance, the employer should not dismiss it just because it may seem petty or insignificant. Generally, any grumble raised as a grievance should be treated as a grievance unless it is a minor grumble that could be resolved informally.

In some circumstances, if an employee keeps grumbling about an issue, it can be sensible to suggest the employee brings a formal grievance or that they drop it. In rare circumstances, instigating the grievance procedure on the employee’s behalf can help close down an issue. Once the grievance procedure has been exhausted, it will usually be reasonable to tell the employee that the issue is closed.

Care should be taken if the allegation is potentially serious, for example sexual harassment. How the employee perceives the behaviour is an important factor in considering if conduct is harassment or not. Care should also be taken if the employee is raising an issue that could give them protection as a whistle-blower. Employers should investigate the grievance and consider how the employee has been affected. We can advise you on how to respond.

If an employee raises a complaint about an ongoing disciplinary procedure against them, in many cases you will not need to open up a fresh grievance process. We can advise you on whether the complaint can be safely fed into the disciplinary procedure.

First Step

Upon receipt of a formal grievance the employer should arrange a meeting with the employee to provide them the opportunity to explain their grievance and how they would like it resolved. The employee has the right to be accompanied by a work colleague, trade union representative or an official employed by a trade union.

Do we have to investigate?

Most grievances need at least a brief investigation. Unless you carry out a reasonable investigation, the employee can argue that they were not given a reasonable chance for redress of their grievance. This could lead to a constructive dismissal claim.

How far do we have to investigate?

This will always be a balancing act. On the one hand, employers should deal with grievances promptly to comply with the Code and to ensure the fair treatment of the complainant and any employees named in the grievance. On the other hand, the investigation needs to be thorough enough so that the manager deciding on the grievance can reach a reasoned view.

A desk-top investigation may be sufficient, for example into a pay error. In dealing with more complex allegations, such as of bullying and harassment, a reasonable investigation is likely to involve interviewing individuals. For example, if an employee alleges that an incidence of bullying was witnessed by a colleague, the colleague should be interviewed. However, it may be reasonable to limit the number of individuals who are interviewed, for example if an employee in a large team alleges that the team manager shouts in team meetings, it may not be necessary to interview the whole team.

What are the risks of not looking into a grievance?

Employees have a right to redress of a work-place grievance. If the grievance is ignored or only considered very superficially, this can give the employee the option to resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal. In most cases, the employee needs two years’ service for this. Depending on the background, employees may also be able to argue that the failure to deal with a grievance properly is discriminatory or is a detriment for blowing the whistle.

Employers who do not follow the steps and principles set out in the Acas Code, risk the tribunal increasing the employee’s award by up to 25 per cent. This applies to claims such as discrimination, disputes over pay and detriment as a whistle-blower.

How we can help

Employee grievances will crop up from time to time, and handling them effectively can really pay off. Dealing with these carefully, and the fall-out from grievances, can require careful management.

Sometimes employees bring a grievance to use as leverage in negotiations for an exit payment. Promptly and effectively dealing with the grievance can strengthen the employer’s bargaining position.

We are highly experienced in these areas and can support you in managing the risks. For further information, please contact Paula Stuart in the Employment team on 01908 689345 or email Geoffrey Leaver Solicitors has offices in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.


Paula Stuart, Partner

Paula Stuart | Partner