HR Mavericks

Eddy’s HR Mavericks Encyclopedia

Employee Grievance
When your employees come to you with concerns, complaints, or issues, are you comfortable responding to them? This article explains employee grievances and how to handle them.

What Is an Employee Grievance?

An employee grievance refers to a concern, problem, or complaint an employee has about work. This could include their manager, another coworker, working conditions, or anything else work-related.

Why Is It Important to Address Employee Grievances?

HR is usually the first place people think of going when they have a problem at work. It is important for HR to listen, but even more important to address those grievances actively. Here are some reasons why it is important to address employee grievances.
  • Supports retention and productivity. Employees want to be heard by their employers. Failing to listen to your employees can have negative effects on your company. Employees who feel heard are more productive and engaged. If a company doesn’t take the time to listen to an employee’s grievance and then take action, the employee may feel like they aren’t valued by their company. This can lead to dissatisfaction and poor productivity.
  • Avoids creating a toxic culture. Failing to address employee grievances can lead to persistent or worsening issues. If these issues continue, it can lead to a toxic culture that employees don't want to be a part of. If employees feel like nothing will happen when grievances are brought, employees will continue to act in a toxic way, and employees being harmed will not feel comfortable coming forward with their needs.
  • Increases your awareness. When addressing an employee grievance, part of the process is getting the full story. If an employee comes to you with a complaint about their manager, you might need to do an investigation to get all the facts and determine what is going on. If you simply listen to an employee’s complaint but don’t address it in any way, you are likely to miss important details. Taking concerns seriously is another avenue of learning what is happening in your organization.
  • Prevents larger issues. Intervening as quickly as possible can head off worsening consequences such as employees leaving, workplace violence, legal claims, and decreased productivity and morale.

Types of Employee Grievance

The key with any employee grievance is to listen to the employee and take action as needed. It is also helpful to understand the different types of employee grievances. Let's look at discrimination, unfair treatment, safety, compensation, and workload grievances.

Discrimination and Harassment

Employees may feel discriminated against or harassed because of their age, gender, ethnicity, race, religion, or because someone acts in a harmful or aggressive way towards them. This is not something that should be taken lightly. Failure to address discrimination or harassment in the workplace can lead to legal action against the organization.

Favoritism or Unfair Treatment

This might occur when a manager is either allowing an employee to not follow rules that others have to follow or is treating someone unfairly by having different rules or expectations for them. This can cause unrest on a team and make employees feel persecuted.

Workplace Safety or Health Concerns

Complaints about workplace safety or health concerns are most common in places where manual labor occurs. An employee might file a grievance saying that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protocols are not being followed. Or they might file a grievance that they don’t feel safe in the environment they are working in and more precautions should be taken. Even employees in an office environment may find that something in the environment is making them sick. Any claims like this should lead to a company investigation to determine if changes need to be made.

Contract and Compensation Issues

This can become a bit more complicated, as there are a lot of things that go into determining an employee’s pay and their contract. An employee might file a complaint about their pay being unequal to others or feel that their contract is being breached. Whether it’s involving your legal team to review the contract and ensure it is being followed or making the employee’s manager aware of the employee’s complaints about their pay, listen actively and take action.

Workload and Performance Expectations

Employees often have complaints about their manager’s expectations, the job not being what they were promised when hired, or being overworked and burned out. Typically, receiving a grievance like this will lead to a conversation with their manager to help them understand that their employee, and likely other employees, is feeling overwhelmed and burnt out, and supporting that manager in addressing the issue.

How to Handle Employee Grievances

Every type of employee grievance is handled a little differently, but the process for each is similar. Here is a step-by-step process of how employee grievances should be handled.

Step 1: Acknowledge and Listen

The first step is listening to the grievance and acknowledging it. When an employee comes to you with a grievance, you should never dismiss it or respond defensively. Listen to everything they have to say, and treat their concern in a serious manner. Seek all the facts from the employee so they feel validated and heard.

Step 2: Investigate

Any time a grievance is filed, you need to do your homework and gather all the facts. Depending on the type of grievance, this might include hearing all sides of the stories. If a safety procedure wasn’t followed, review the procedure and check to see if other incidents like this have occurred. Talking to others and researching the matter is likely the longest step.

Step 3: Meet With All Parties

After you have gathered all the facts and talked to all involved parties, schedule a meeting with everyone impacted by the grievance to notify them of what was found in the investigation. Depending on the grievance, it might be best to meet with individuals separately. In this meeting, everyone will be notified of the ramifications of the investigation, including any corrective action or potential changes to policies, organizational structure, or employee status.

Step 4: Take Action and Document

The last step is making the necessary changes. All this should be documented, including the need for the change. Taking action is vital, as it shows employees that change can happen when they are willing to express their concerns and file employee grievances.

Step 5: Follow Up

Some time after the grievance process has taken place and action has been taken, there should be follow-up. This will depend on the type of grievance, but review the resolution and what kind of impact it has had. Check in with the person who filed the grievance and see if any additional conversations need to take place or additional action needs to be taken.

Best Practices for Dealing With Employee Grievances

Employee grievances are delicate situations and should be handled as such. Here are some best practices to consider when dealing with employee grievances.

Confidentiality

Approach employee grievances with strict confidentiality. Only the parties involved—HR and decision-makers (such as executives or department heads)—should be made aware of the grievance and investigation. Failing to do so can lead to gossip about the employees involved, cloud someone’s judgment when determining the ramifications of the grievance, and discourage other employees from coming forward with their own concerns.

Communication

During the grievance process, it is important that there is constant communication with the employee. Depending on the type of grievance, it can take weeks to resolve. Failure to keep the employee updated can lead to the employee feeling frustrated and vulnerable and thinking they aren’t being listened to. You should try to update all involved parties at least weekly.

Documentation

HR’s favorite word: documentation! Carefully document everything during a grievance process, including all conversations and consultations (with attorneys, for instance). If a verbal conversation takes place, take thorough notes and send a follow-up email with a review of the conversation. Record the decision-making and resolution process and how it was enacted.
Employee grievances can have serious legal ramifications. Here are some best practices to consider.

Know Relevant Laws and Regulations

Employment law is a complex area; it's good to have an expert to consult with and important to have an understanding of the basics.
  • On a federal level, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces a range of laws and regulations designed to prevent discrimination and harassment.
  • It's also important to have a grievance procedure in your employee handbook encouraging employees to come forward with concerns and outlining how to do so and what to expect in response.

Ensure Fairness and Equity

A company should always strive for fairness and equity in pay, job responsibilities, and workplace behavior. If two employees who are performing or doing similar work are treated or paid differently, this can lead to a lawsuit.

Protect Employees From Retaliation

One of the biggest things employees worry about when filing a grievance is retaliation. Retaliation refers to an employee’s demotion, failure to be promoted, decrease in pay, or decrease in hours due to them filing an employee grievance. Retaliation is illegal. In order to protect your company from retaliation lawsuits, be sure that if an employee is demoted, not promoted, or receives a decrease in pay or in hours, it is not because of an employee grievance they filed but is performance-based.

Document the Grievance

When conducting any kind of investigation or grievance, the whole process must be documented. It should be clear when events occurred, who was spoken to, what those people said, and any other pertinent information. A grievance should be so well-documented that someone that wasn’t a part of the investigation could get a complete understanding of what happened from reading the file.
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Tanner Pierce, PHR

Tanner Pierce, PHR

Tanner has over 4 years of HR professional experience in various fields of HR. He has experience in hiring, recruiting, employment law, unemployment, onboarding, outboarding, and training to name a few. Most of his experience comes from working in the Professional Employer and Staffing Industries. He has a passion for putting people in the best position to succeed and really tries to understand the different backgrounds people come from.
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Frequently asked questions
Other Related Terms
Arbitration
Employee Conflict Resolution
Employee Misconduct
Employee Relations Case Management
Employee Suspension
Employee Write-Ups
Employee/Office Gossip
Employment Litigation
Progressive Discipline
Workplace Bullying
Workplace Investigations
Workplace Mediation
Workplace Retaliation
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