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Informal Grievances - Making Proper Use of Them

Most employers have a grievance procedure, which sets out how an employee can raise a complaint and how it will be managed. Many procedures have a section about raising grievances informally in the first instance. Notwithstanding this, far too many grievances seem to proceed straight down the formal route.

Sometimes, formalising grievances can lead to polarised positions. There is a strict protocol to follow. People involved will know a grievance has been raised and therefore also often know who and/or what it is about. Also, it is not always easy to deal with matters as quickly as parties would like. Employees often tell you how stressful the formal process is and this can sometimes lead to them falling ill and being absent. Sometimes (but not always) the employee is also left feeling disappointed with the outcome. This can leave employers with the headache of trying to engage with an unhappy employee.

This article explores the informal grievance stage and considers how employers can make better use of it.

What are the advantages of dealing with it in an informal way?

There are no real rules when dealing with a grievance informally. Employers and employees can be creative, dependant on the type of complaint.

Employees may feel anxious about raising a formal grievance or complaint. They may be concerned about the reaction they might receive or worry how it will affect their job security. The advantage of dealing with complaints informally, is that you can often agree with the employee how best they want you to handle the issue, and this can be done without having to notify lots of people or conduct detailed investigations.

Another advantage is speed. You will want to have some record of how you are dealing with the process but you have much more flexibility and you can arrange meetings (if needed) much more quickly and without the need for formality.

What are the drawbacks?

It is not always appropriate to deal with a grievance informally. The complaint may be so serious and have such wide-reaching implications that dealing with it informally will simply not work.

You also may need the protection that a formal process will bring. Particularly if you anticipate that potential litigation could ensue, dependant on how the matter is handled.

Further, an informal process may not lead to the precise issue being dealt with. You may not get to the bottom of what is causing the issue or concern, or indeed, whether there is a wider problem that needs to be dealt with.

What if the employee wants to go through the formal process?

You cannot force an employee to go down the informal route. However, that should not stop you at least having a discussion with the employee about whether they would like the matter to be considered informally first.

Employees may think that dealing with a grievance informally is in some way letting the company off the hook. It is important that you correct this misinterpretation and make it clear that the aim of the informal process is to resolve, as best you can, the employee's complaint, and that it is simply a different approach that may suit them better. You can make it clear that this does not prevent from them later having their grievance dealt with formally.

You need to be careful that you are not applying undue pressure on the employee to agree to dealing with the matter informally and you must make it clear that they have the choice. However, you should at least attempt to explore the options, so that the employee can make an informed decision. Explaining in full what both processes potentially will look like will help in this decision-making.

How should an informal process be managed?

The beauty of dealing with a matter informally is that there are no real set rules. The only two rules we would recommend are:

Agree with the employee what the informal process will look like; and Make sure that the process is seen to be resolving the complaint in some way. This does not mean that you will always need make a decision in relation to the complaint raised, but merely that you have understood how the employee is looking to resolve the issue, and that the process you design seeks to achieve that.

You may also wish to involve some or all of the below:

Some form of meeting/conversation to discuss the complaint - this should happen quickly and be informal; You may want to agree with the employee if there is anything you should be looking into or whether there is a need for any particular fact-finding; Ask the employee for a clear indication of what they want as an outcome, as this may well drive the process; You may want to hold discussions with others. You may want to agree this with the employee and also agree whether he/she wants to be involved; You might want to agree timescales - the idea of an informal process is that it should happen quickly with the minimum of fuss and process; You might want to consider whether you introduce the services of an outside consultant (such as a mediator); You can agree what is documented, if anything, regarding the outcome of the complaint; You might want to agree a period of leave to help with the process, dependant on the complaint made or agree how the employee will continue to work and who needs to be aware of the complaint - ideally you want to try to minimise the people involved, where possible.

How you manage the process is up to you and the employee to agree. You can set out how you envisage the process operating and try to direct this, but generally the best informal processes are agreed with the employee.

Dealing with a grievance informally will not always work. Hopefully, however, better use of informal processes will give you the chance to resolve suitable complaints quickly and without drama. Often matters dealt with in this way stand a better chance of achieving a positive outcome, rather than being dragged through a long and drawn-out formalised process where parties are left to think and worry.