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An employer’s guide to taking grievances seriously

22nd January 2024 by Alana Penkethman

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Dealing with employee grievances properly can require a great deal of time and effort, but a prompt investigation could uncover inappropriate behaviour or poor management. If this can be nipped in the bud, you may avoid bigger problems down the line and avoid reputational risk for the organisation.

Employers must 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 Alana Penkethman, employment expert Laceys 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.’

Alana sets out why employers should take grievances seriously from the outset and explains how employers can 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?

Generally, any complaint raised as a grievance should be treated as a grievance. In rare cases, it may be legitimate to dismiss a grievance if it is vexatious or made in bad faith, but please speak to us first. Likewise, if the grievance seems like a minor grumble that could be resolved informally, employers should try this initially. However, in most cases, a thorough investigation will be required, regardless of the reasoning for the grievance or apparent severity.

Additional care should be taken if there is an allegation of discrimination or harassment. How the employee perceives the behaviour is an important factor in considering if conduct is harassment or not. Conduct that may be banter to one, may be bullying to another, and may amount to discrimination in an employment tribunal. Employers should err on the side of caution, looking into the grievance and hearing how the employee has been affected. Care should also be taken if the employee is raising an issue that could give them protection as a whistle-blower. We can advise you on how to respond.

In some circumstances, if an employee keeps reporting an issue, it can be sensible to suggest the employee brings a formal grievance, simply to allow the matter to be addressed properly. In such circumstances, instigating the grievance procedure on the employee’s behalf can help conclude a dispute. Once the grievance procedure has been exhausted, it will usually be reasonable to tell the employee that the issue is closed, allowing all parties to move on.

What are the risks of not looking into a grievance?

If a grievance is ignored, or not given due consideration, this can give the employee the option to resign and claim constructive dismissal. In most cases, the employee needs two years’ service before they can bring such a claim. 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 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 employee and any colleagues 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 an informed decision.

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 can we do if the grievance is unfounded?

Grievances can be very damaging to working relationships. Even when a grievance is resolved, the affected relationships may be irreparable. However, dismissals should be avoided, particularly if the employee alleged discrimination and is protected from victimisation. Sometimes, if all trust and confidence has been destroyed, it may be possible to fairly dismiss, but please speak to us first to help you navigate your way through this. Similarly, employers can take action if grievances have been brought in bad faith or are vexatious. Again, this needs careful consideration.  

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 Alana on 01202 377 872 or email a.penkethman@laceyssolicitors.co.uk.

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.

Alana Penkethman

Associate — Corporate and Commercial

Direct dial: 01202 377872

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  • “It’s a comfort to be able to rely on people who are professional and honest in their approach, having had to face a situation with difficult requirements for the first time it was always going to be challenging. Alana advised us all the way through, provided highly professional advise and options and helped guide us through to a successful end. We are truly happy with the service and will continue to use Alana and Laceys as needed.”

    Derek Wright

  • “I used Laceys for an employment related matter and was extremely satisfied with the service that they provided. Alana was everything that I could have hoped for: calm, professional, objective, reassuring and empathetic. I would not hesitate to recommend them.”

    Rick Nurse

  • “Alana helped me through a extremely difficult and emotional period in a professional and supportive manner. The process was over swiftly and I am very satisfied with the service, so thank you for everything.”

    Bradley Thompson

  • “At the outset Alana understood what I required. Explained the process, and delivered on the service. I was very happy with the process and outcome.”

    Andrew Taylor

Alana is an Associate in our Corporate and Commercial team and is an expert employment lawyer. She advises businesses and individuals on matters arising from recruitment to termination.

Alana provides pragmatic advice, ensuring problems are resolved as quickly as possible, and in turn minimising disruption and stress to both parties. When litigation is unavoidable, Alana excels in negotiations and will deliver robust representation.

Since qualification in 2011, Alana has developed a specialism in discrimination matters, and is passionate about equality in the workplace.

When Alana is not working, she enjoys flying with a hot air balloon team and is a keen cyclist. She also enjoys live music and plays the saxophone.

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