What is a grievance?
A grievance is a formal employee complaint that is filed when an employee or group of employees is negatively affected by violations of workplace policies or contract terms. In unionized workplaces, grievances are typically filed when the terms of the collective bargaining agreement are not being met. In non-unionized workplaces, employee grievances are often filed when a written company policy has been misinterpreted or misapplied.
Examples of employee grievances
Some of the most common types of grievance procedures include:
- Individual grievances: When a single employee is experiencing a problem in the workplace. This could include issues involving pay and benefits, excessive workload, workplace favoritism, bullying or discrimination, lack of a transparent promotion process, etc.
- Group grievances: When a group of employees with similar complaints and experiences within the workplace file a group grievance. This typically happens when one team or department has been affected by a workplace issue in the same way. Examples include grievances related to the gender pay gap, employee schedules, organizational changes, etc.
- Union grievances: Unions file a grievance when they believe rights are not being protected. For example, a union might file a grievance if management didn’t properly deduct union dues.
- Policy grievances: When an individual or union addresses the need to create a policy to protect all workers, or there’s been a failure to uphold an agreed-upon policy and it affects everyone covered by that agreement. Example of policy grievances that affect all workers could include undesirable working conditions, issues involving workplace health and safety, etc.
Your company should be prepared to handle any of these types of grievances.
Benefits of grievance procedures
A formal grievance procedure gives employees a chance to challenge management’s decisions, voice their opinions and concerns and provides an opportunity to resolve conflict quickly, fairly and effectively through conflict management. It can also help foster trust, since having a written grievance procedure encourages employees to raise concerns without fear of retaliation.
Other benefits of having an employee grievance procedure in place include:
- Prevents minor complaints or disagreements from spiraling into something more serious.
- Encourages you to develop company policies and employment contracts that are highly specific and have clear expectations.
- Helps foster a company culture of transparency, openness and trust.
- Makes employees feel heard and valued.
- Helps prevent and address bias, discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
- Gives employees a tool to resolve their problems, instead of quitting or being less productive.
- Serves as a cost-effective way to resolve problems and disputes before they result in litigation.
5 employee grievance process steps
How a business handles grievances (known as their grievance procedure), varies from company to company — especially under different collective bargaining agreements and written workplace policies. However, companies often follow similar general processes for addressing grievances in the workplace.
Here’s a typical grievance procedure you can use to create your own:
1. Informal meeting with supervisor
Before filing a grievance, encourage employees to talk with their manager first. Often, having an informal chat with a supervisor is all that’s needed to resolve a complaint or workplace issue.
For example, if an employee feels that they deserve a promotion but haven’t received one in several years, a manager may explain why they haven’t been promoted and the steps they can take to receive a promotion in the future. It’s important for managers to acknowledge the grievance and actively listen to employee concerns.
2. Formal grievance in writing
Consider creating a grievance form for employees to fill out. You can also have employees send an email with details about the grievance. Encourage employees to include as many details as possible, including names and dates. Depending on what your grievance procedure policy stipulates, you can also have employees verbally make a complaint and have the supervisor write down the employee’s statement.
Whichever way you choose to do it, make sure the employee’s grievance is put in writing.
Note: You may choose to require employees to file formal grievances within a certain time period after the event occurred (e.g., within one month, within one year).
3. Evaluate the grievance
At this stage, you may choose to loop in your human resources department. For unionized workplaces, this is typically where union representatives get involved on behalf of the employee.
Evaluate the details of the grievance to determine your next steps. Perhaps it’s a simple fix that can be resolved immediately. If an employee receives an inaccurate paycheck, for example, the grievance can potentially be resolved within minutes. However, if the grievance is more complicated and involves other staff members, the next step is typically a formal investigation.
Note: Especially in unionized workplaces, employers may have a specific amount of time to respond to and resolve a grievance.
4. Conduct a formal investigation
To conduct a formal investigation, you may need to interview the employee who filed the grievance as well as anyone else who was involved. Collect any evidence you can to help you come up with a resolution (e.g., email chains, witness testimony, receipts). You may also choose to appoint an independent investigator to conduct the investigation to keep the process fair and unbiased.
Finally, the investigator, HR, supervisor and anyone else who was involved in the investigation writes a formal conclusion based on their findings. Let the employee know what your decision is and what action you’ll take.
If the resolution isn’t satisfactory to the employee, a mediator may be called in to help resolve the situation. If you offer employees the right to appeal the final decision, make sure to include this in your grievance process policy.
Grievance procedure best practices for managers
Here are some helpful approaches for you, managers and supervisors to take regarding grievances from employees:
Provide all employees with an employee handbook
When you hire an employee, give them a copy of the employee handbook to review before officially starting in their position. Require all employees to sign a document stating that they’ve received the employee handbook and read through it.
This helps in situations where an employee claims to not know the company rules or standards, and gives them the opportunity to refer to the handbook any time they need clarification on company rules.
Conduct consistent meetings with employees throughout the year
The most important thing you can do to prevent employees from filing grievances is building a positive and professional relationship with each of them. Many grievances are filed after a pattern of consistent negative experiences or behaviors experienced or witnessed in the workplace.
If you’re meeting with employees weekly, monthly or even once per quarter, there’s a greater chance that you’ll learn of potential grievances sooner, allowing you to address any issues before they progress further. The trust you build as a result of these meetings can also decrease the likelihood of employees reporting grievances at all.
Hold all employees to the same standards
Standardizing your expectations for employees makes disciplinary procedures more simple and fair for everyone. Employees will feel like they’re on the same level as their peers, and this reduces the chances of an employee filing a grievance based on manager favoritism. Overall, this approach can promote a more positive and equal environment for everyone at your company.
Document employee performance, infractions and grievances
As a manager or supervisor, keep track of the performance, infractions and grievances of each of your employees. This will allow you to visualize the issues that may be occurring in your department and predict them before they reach an extreme point.
For example, if an employee in your department has been reported for harassing their coworker, begin implementing a behavioral plan for the employee and track their progress over a period of time. In this situation, it would also be beneficial to follow up with the employee who was harassed and provide them with any support they need.
Offer frequent workplace training to managers and employees
While your employees may be skilled at their jobs, many factors contribute to a successful, functioning workplace. Scheduling consistent workplace training to teach employees how to interact more positively or even build stronger relationships with one another will benefit entire departments. It may also help to schedule training that directly relates to your employees’ work responsibilities, which allows them to stay confident in their skills and may promote growth in their roles.
When employees feel a connection to their supervisors and peers, the morale of the department increases and dissatisfaction among coworkers decreases.
Related: How to Manage Employees