Rise in Formal Grievances in the workplace
The COVID pandemic jolted society in every country and changed our perceptions in profound ways, but in the UK it also jolted the foundation of a workplace model which had not much changed since the 1920’s. The traditional model of an employee travelling from home to their workplace for a set many days per week and working set core hours at that workplace has been swept away. Hybrid and flexible working are here to stay.
The pandemic fundamentally redesigned where (and to a lesser extent when) office workers work. It also changed how that work is carried out for many people with mass, simultaneous rise / uptake of new technologies such as Zoom and Teams reducing the number of face to face “in-the flesh” meetings in all industry sectors. But it has also changed how employees think and feel about work.
For some, the pandemic has led to a change in priorities, putting their own needs or dreams first. For others, the way they perceive they have been treated during the pandemic has affected their view of their employer. The result is that employees feel more empowered and more confident to speak up if they are not happy with any aspect of the workplace or their work. There have also been a rise in disputes related to mental health since the pandemic due to pre-existing mental health issues having been exacerbated by isolation, working conditions and the uncertainty created by the pandemic. Coupled with these trend shifts, we have also seen a marked increase in unacceptable conduct at work with a not insignificant minority coming out of lockdown with very skewed ideas about what is acceptable behaviour at work (and some would argue in wider society).
The upshot of all these factors is that employers are now facing a big increase in the number of employees raising formal grievances. We have clearly seen this across our client-base and is further borne out by increases in the number of cases reaching the ACAS Conciliation stage and also those going all the way to Employment Tribunal. Grievances take time to deal with correctly and we all know that time is money. And more importantly, if they are not dealt with correctly then they can snowball into much bigger disputes, taking much more time, effort and money to resolve.
Disputes cost money
ACAS published a report in 2021, based on research conducted by the Universities of Sheffield and Westminster. The research was carried out before the pandemic and concluded that workplace conflict cost UK employers £28.5 billion every year – just over £1,000 on average for every employee.
The biggest annual costs to employers identified in the report include:
- £11.9 billion from resignations
- £10.5 billion from disciplinary dismissals
- £2.2 billion from sickness absence
These estimates are based on the cost to organisations of handling workplace conflict, which includes informal, formal and legal processes as well as the cost of sickness absences and resignations stemming from conflict. In the period researched, of the 9.7 million workers who experienced conflict of some kind at work, more than half suffered stress, anxiety or depression as a result; just under 900 took time off work; nearly half a million resigned, and over 300,000 employees were dismissed.
The reality now is that workplace conflict is extensive, with many experiencing stress, anxiety and depression as a result. The ACAS report states, “Not only this, but the escalating issues that lead to staff sickness, poor performance and resignation or dismissal come at a huge financial cost to the organisation.”
flThe report also suggests that conflict was suppressed during the height of the pandemic – in part due to increased home-working. However, as the economy returns to a new normality, it is likely that insecurity, rapid change and continuing economic pressures will lead to an increasing range of complex personnel and therefore interpersonal problems.
The Grievance Process
fiGrievances are widely defined as concerns, problems or complaints that employees raise with their employer. A grievance at work could relate to just about anything, whether regarding working conditions, bullying and harassment, pay, failure of process, a dispute with a colleague or a lack of management support. The important aspect is that the grievance derives from the employer-employee relationship, whether directly or indirectly. A grievance can be made at any time, but all too often they are made in response to or in anticipation of acts such as redundancy consultation, disciplinary investigations, or performance management processes.
Informal methods of resolution should firstly be explored with both the complainant and the respondent. Most disputes can be the result of miscommunication or an honest mistake that has escalated out of control causing parties to become entrenched. Workplace mediation can often nip things in the bud and draw a line under an issue before it is escalates to a formal level. It is key that managers act and do not hope that the problems will resolve themselves or go away. That rarely happens.
The purpose of a grievance process is meant to be to resolve concerns, problems or complaints raised by employees. fiIn practice, we find this is often not the case. Unfortunately, a grievance by its nature is usually a criticism. It is therefore often seen by the person about who the grievance has been raised, rightly or wrongly, as ‘disloyal’ or an ‘attack’ on individuals or the business.
Employees incorrectly think that a grievance is the only way to raise concerns, and often an employer refuses to consider an employee’s concern unless they raise a written formal grievance. Clearly this in itself leads to more formal grievances and is self-defeating, driven by a lack of understanding of the law and guidance.
However, remember that ACAS does require that at a certain point an employee should raise the matter formally, in writing, and without unreasonable delay. Unreasonable failure to raise a grievance can lead to up to 25% reduction in compensation if the employee eventually takes legal action and wins a tribunal claim. Equally if the employer fails to follow the correct procedure for a grievance, they could have a 25% uplift in compensation awarded against them should the employee win a tribunal claim.
The downsides of standard grievance procedures:
- Grievances focus on what has gone wrong and contain allegations that cannot always be proved, because often there is not a witness or clear evidence.
- An employer’s or other accused employee’s most common reaction is to defend themselves. A response may include counter allegations such as poor performance.
- Grievances often entrench the dispute or ratchet up the tension. It is difficult for both sides to backtrack unless they engage in mediation. Both sides put their energies into defending their position rather than finding a solution. Both sides dwell on what has gone wrong – they rarely consider what can be done to rectify the problem.
- The grievance is the first step in a legal system which pits one side against the other: a route towards the employment tribunal, not resolution.
- Grievances are rarely upheld – at least not if upholding a complaint would form the basis of a legal claim – and so matters escalate further.
- You then have the appeal against the grievance finding.
- Employers spend time going through the process, but there is rarely a happy ending. The employee often feels that they have not been listened to, the outcome was pre-determined and anger mounts. The only justice they are going to get is in a tribunal.
- Battle begins. Both parties spend time and money, stress levels rise, and threats are made.
- Many employees do not stay in their job after raising a grievance.
- Grievances rarely achieve objectives. Most employees want an apology, to avoid conflict and maybe to leave with dignity. Employers will rarely ‘risk’ admitting fault for fear of opening themselves up to a legal claim. Apologies are often the first thing an employee wants but the last thing an employer feels able to give.
Early resolution of workplace issues is the best outcome for both the employer and the employee. By spending time and effort at the outset, considerable time, effort, emotional energy and money can be saved. There is therefore a strong business case for investing in the capacity to prevent, contain and resolve conflict.
Employers need to focus on early interventions and ensure effective resolutions are in place to repair employment relationships when they are strained or stretched. Absolutely critical to this intervention is managers being willing and able to identify problems early and explore effective options to resolve the dispute constructively with both parties. Training is key so that managers are equipped with the skills to identify and intervene.
It is also needs commitment throughout the management structure so that a culture is fostered in which disagreements can happen but there is a willingness from all sides to discuss them constructively and resolve them. There must be a way that employees can raise a concern or problem informally and know that it will be dealt with seriously by management. Otherwise what option do they have but to go down a formal process?
By taking it seriously the employer is:
- Keeping a good working relationship with the employee.
- Showing that they aim to listen and deal with their concerns
- Avoiding the need for a formal grievance – this can affect the company’s reputation, take time and be difficult for everyone involved.
Black Mountain can work with you to make a more robust informal alternatives to managing workplace conflict. By acting proactively you may save considerable management time when you do have disputes. We offer training in how to manage grievances as well as mediation support to help bring parties together and repair relationships.
The key is to seek advice early if managers are unsure about how to handle specific situations. It is far better to spend 10 minutes on the phone to our HR team getting advice than not dealing with an employee concern or worst still going down a path which compounds the problem. Early intervention is the best chance of resolution.