Since the beginning of the pandemic, care sector clients have reported a significant rise in the number of grievances being raised. This may be a direct result of the severe pressure placed on care sector employees during, and after, the pandemic (which has certainly been exacerbated by the issues caused by the introduction and revocation of the mandatory vaccination!).
Most employers have a grievance procedure, which sets out how an employee can raise a complaint (and how it will be managed); and many procedures have a section about raising grievances informally in the first instance. Notwithstanding this, why is it that 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 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 may then leave employers with the headache of trying to engage with an unhappy employee or unhappy teams.
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. Where a complaint includes concerns which may amount to whistleblowing, or raises regulatory concerns (for example, involving the CQC), dealing with the complaint 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 actually causing the issue or concern, or indeed, whether there is a wider problem that needs to be dealt with. Failure to deal with the issue properly, could result in significant implications to the company, especially where regulatory bodies are concerned (such as the CQC).
What if the employee wants to go through the formal process?
You cannot force an employee to go down the informal route, although 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 them from later having their grievance dealt with formally if they are not satisfied with the explanation provided.
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: (1) agree with the employee what the informal process will look like; and (2) make sure that the process is seen to be resolving the complaint in some way.
This does not mean that you will always need to 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:
- a meeting/conversation to discuss the complaint – this should be quick and informal;
- agree with the employee what 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;
- hold discussions with others if appropriate – you may want to agree this with the employee and also agree whether they want to be involved;
- agree timescales - the idea of an informal process is that it should happen quickly with the minimum of fuss and process;
- consider whether you introduce the services of an outside consultant (such as a mediator);
- agree what is documented, if anything, regarding the outcome of the complaint;
- consider 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.
Unfortunately, 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. Given the current staff shortages being felt within the care sector, ensuring that employee’s grievances and complaints are dealt with efficiently, effectively and informally will go a long way to improving retention and staff relationships.
If you would like any further advice please get in touch with a member of the team.
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