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How to avoid unnecessary resource-intensive formal grievance

Article by Coreen Nugent, Director - Opt for Learning

While some formal grievances are certainly justified, others could be avoided and yet they can become a disruptive and even potentially devastating force in the organisation concerned. A cold spotlight on the negative aspects of the business, demotivated employees, ongoing risk management of the situation, a distraction from everyday work activities, alongside reduced opportunities to focus on growth and development. Resource intensive and costly, as facts are gathered and verified in an often tense and suspicious working environment. How can we avoid the unnecessary all-consuming formal grievance?

In my experience, formal grievances have, over the years, become increasingly complex. What was once a three page letter at most, citing one respondent, two witnesses and two or three supporting documents, if any, has evolved into today’s twenty-five page grievance document, fifty-plus supporting documents (email threads, recordings, verbatim and chat transcripts, direct messages, minutes, social media posts, contracts, procedures, business plans, spreadsheets), and lengthy witness lists.

While there is, of course, a process to evaluate the reasonable and proportionate depth of any workplace investigation, the submission of a complex grievance with, for example, multiple respondents, wide staff involvement, serious allegations of wrong doing, based around a significant timeline of events will require careful handling.

Reasons for the increasing complexity of formal grievances are varied, with a menu of choice that includes improved knowledge and awareness of organisational procedures, increased levels of workplace stress and anxiety, pandemic related isolation and the introduction of new ways of working, all underpinned by familiar workplace issues such as communication channels, job reductions, restructures, inappropriate behaviours, poor management and unhealthy working relationships. Regardless of the context, however, it must be time to embed practical ways to side-step the costly quagmire that formal grievances can create.

The informal stage of the grievance procedure offers practical and cost-effective solutions, plus development opportunities.

Often off the shelf, to meet statutory requirements, a company grievance procedure can be a sparse offering: informal, formal, investigation and appeal. Expanding the informal stage of the procedure to include an outline of a variety of interventions available to support early resolution can, however, help prevent issues degenerating to the point of a formal grievance.

Skilled employees, managers or external professionals, not involved in the situation, able to facilitate difficult conversations between employees, experienced managers to help resolve performance management tensions, conflict coaching and mediation are some possible initiatives. The key is availability, variety and interventions adaptable and flexible to the emerging situation and working environment, as part of a culture of early resolution and open communication.

While the formal grievance is always available for serious incidents, the informal stage can be developed to have a real impact to prevent low level tensions and interpersonal challenges becoming unwieldy, high risk and costly formal procedures.

Genuine investment in the informal stage of the grievance procedure can deliver far-reaching rewards, including a versatile and skilled workforce, productive and harmonious working relationships, a culture of open communication and reduced risk of costly and devastating formal procedures.

    Coreen Nugent is Director of Opt for Learning, a practical workforce development company. Coreen has over 35 years' experience in employment relations and employee development.

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