Managing grievance in the workplace

One of the many important policies that a responsible employer must have in place is also quite possibly the simplest: a grievance procedure. Despite biases to the contrary encouraging and empowering employees to raise concerns and alert the employer to conflicts promotes a healthy working environment.

A grievance is any complaint an employee may raise due to a feeling of discontent, unfairness, or injustice in respect to his or her work conditions or against a colleague, manager, or supervisor. The cause of the feeling may be deliberate (as in the case of harassment, victimisation, or bullying) or unintentional but may be experienced as equally detrimental by the employee. A grievance procedure should be aimed at resolving workplace problems and complaints before they escalate to litigation in a fair, transparent, and consistent manner without directly or indirectly prejudicing the employee lodging the complaint.

Depending on the needs and staff compliment of an employer, grievance procedures do not need to be formal or elaborate. In smaller companies a short section in the employment contract detailing the steps to follow to report a complaint may be sufficient. Larger organisations with more complex management and oversight structures should compile a more formal policy document, outlining the hierarchal order in which complaints should be escalated.

Ideally, minor complaints should be resolved through informal meetings with the employees’ manager or supervisor unless the employee requests a formal meeting. In the case of a more serious complaint, a formal meeting should be called, and records must be kept of all proceedings.

Depending on organisational policy, formal grievance procedures should follow the same basic principles:

  • Employees must be entitled to lodge grievances to management.
  • Employees should be allowed representation, either by a colleague or shop.
  • All levels of management must consider the complaints carefully and make genuine attempts at resolving the grievance.
  • The grievance will not be considered resolved until the employee indicates that it is.
  • Time limits should be established for all steps in the process.
  • An employee has the right, should a grievance remain unresolved, to declare a dispute.
  • Grievances should as far as practically possible be managed by the line managers of the employee, however, other employees such as Human Resource Management may be called upon for intervention and advice where necessary.

Grievance procedures should not be used in the place of, or as a reaction to, a disciplinary procedure. Should an employee feel he/she suffered an injustice in a disciplinary process, he/she must lodge an internal appeal against the disciplinary outcome (if the sanction was not dismissal). If this appeal is unsuccessful, or if the sanction was dismissal, the employee can lodge an Unfair Labour Practise dispute with the CCMA or the relevant Bargaining Council.

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