We all complain about our bosses (mostly behind their backs).

With that in mind, it would be silly to expect our employees (or juniors) not to complain about one thing or another in the workplace.

To hear an employee complaining about having a hard time with their tasks, or even day to day interaction with other employees, is already something that happens in many different companies. How you handle these complaints can easily mean the difference between being the superboss everyone wants to work for and the dictator responsible for everybody’s problems.

Effective Ways Of Handling Employee Grievance

Most companies have measures in place to deal with those complaints and resolve any problems. These measures could be in the form of company policies or programs that specifically focus on resolving issues employees have within the workplace, whether it has something to do with their job or with their co-workers.

The perspective shifts greatly when the complaints from employees are directed towards their employers. There has always been a stigma attached to employees complaining against their employer, and this goes back to the old times. Stories of masters and slaves have been told through the ages. If a slave openly expressed their opinions on what they considered to be the shortcomings of their masters, things did not end well.

Don’t get excited. Your employees are not your slaves.

Stories like those have been retold over and over as time went by, even as corporate and workplace cultures have evolved. Employees who complain against their employers were, more often than not, viewed as ungrateful, showing no gratitude because the act seems dangerously close to “biting the hand that feeds them”. That’s probably the reason why for a long time most employees would exploit all possible avenues of solving a problem before approaching the boss.

Today, times have changed in favor of these employees and workers. Worker rights have certainly gained more recognition, and one indication is how complaints are now given more attention and actually taken seriously. Now, employees can make their complaints formal and they even have the right avenues and platforms to formally air their concerns.

WHAT IS EMPLOYEE GRIEVANCE?

Employee grievance is one of the many aspects of personnel management. If you try to go over the company policies and employee handbooks of companies, you are bound to find extensive discussion on employee grievance. But what is a grievance in the first place?

Grievance is generally defined as a “real or imagined wrong, or other cause for protest that is a cause of distress”. In legalese, grievance is any “injury, injustice or wrong that affords reason for resistance, and its formal expression is in the form of a complaint”.

In the context of bosses and their juniors, there is a more specific definition provided by HR practitioners. They define “employee grievance” as a specific complaint or formal notice of employee dissatisfaction related to the adequacy of pay or compensation, the job requirements, the current work conditions, or other aspects of their employment. Often, you will also hear employee grievance when employers are accused by employees to have committed a violation of the terms of an existing collective bargaining agreement.

It is a complaint when the employee merely expresses his thoughts and opinions verbally, talking about it to anyone who cares to listen. It becomes a grievance when the employee formalizes it, mostly through putting the complaint in writing and submitting it to the appropriate authority tasked to look into the resolution of the complaint.

It is comparable to a university setting. Students dissatisfied with certain aspects of the school administration can complain all they want, but it becomes a grievance once they file a collective petition against the university’s administration. Usually, the formal airing of the grievances is the only thing that results in action from the authorities.

Handling employee grievances is a function of the company human resource management department. It makes sense, since the employees can hardly file their complaints against the person they are complaining about, can they? In these instances, the HR department acts as a semi-independent body. It is “semi” independent because, although they are part of the company’s administrative structure, their actions in investigating and helping resolve employee grievances must be independent and unbiased, with respect to the employer or the subject of the complaint.

Employee grievance, although integrated into many company policies, remains to be a heavy and very sensitive issue. Each grievance must be given serious attention, and that falls on the shoulders of the HR or a grievance committee, if there is one formed within the organizational structure. The main task of these grievance committees is to look into the validity of the complaint.

We are talking about having to air your dissatisfaction against the employer that essentially signs your paycheck, so it definitely takes a lot of guts to get out there and make your complaint formal. However, it is also a fact that there are some employees that make baseless accusations against their employers because they have their own agendas in mind. This is why employee grievance must be dealt with fairly and properly.

TYPES OF EMPLOYEE GRIEVANCES

Employees will not complain for no reason. By identifying the types of employee grievances, we can immediately identify the reasons or causes of such complaints. The types of grievances are based on the nature of the complaint, and we will take a look at the most common ones.

Employee compensation and benefits

A great bulk of employee grievance cases has something to do with the pay and benefit packages that employees receive – or do not receive – from their employers. This is the topic most unions take up with the management of the companies they belong to.

For example, you may feel like you are undercompensated, or that your salary is not proportional to the level of your responsibilities combined with the bulk and complexity of the work you are actually doing. Other times, you may also feel that there are benefits that you are entitled to but are not being given. This is reason enough for employees to complain against their employers, and no doubt, if you feel that your employer is dong one of these, you’ll not hesitate to lodge your complaint.

Attention may also be fixed on pay equity within the organization, with respect to the amount of work and the nature of the job. In instances when the company grants pay increases or bonuses, if the incentives are not balanced, the group receiving lower incentives will make complaints that they will feel compelled to take to a formal level.

Employment and personnel policies

Employees’ complaints may also be spurred by layoffs, transfers and assignments. If you feel that you have been unfairly transferred to, say, a division or department where your skills are not really required, and your earlier efforts to ask for a reconsideration fail, chances are that you will feel compelled to formalize the complaint into a grievance.

The grievance could also be due to some areas or clauses contained in the company’s personnel policies, such as the hiring and recruitment procedures, leave administration, and merit and promotion plans, to name a few.

Workload and work distribution

You can also feel that you have been unfairly given more work than other people in the same rank. This clearly shows that there is a problem with how the workload is distributed among the employees. All employees getting the same compensation should also get roughly the same volume of work and responsibilities.

Aside from unfair distribution of work, the complaint may arise simply from the employees’ opinion that the company is working them to the ground. This is especially true in the case of companies that are going through lean times and have to employ cost-cutting measures. For example, efforts of the company to bring down costs could lead to you and the other employees in your department to put in more work outside your usual work hours.

Here’s the catch: if the extra responsibilities will not be treated as overtime, you won’t be receiving any extra compensation and as a result, you will most certainly protest. You will definitely not listen to the explanation that the company is simply cutting down on costs. In other cases, you may be asked to take on more work, so that you are technically going to perform the work of two or three people. If you are asked to do so without a corresponding increase in your compensation, there is bound to be a problem.

Your employer may have appealed to your good conscience to “sacrifice that much” for the company during tough times. During the first few months, you’re probably going to be all right with it. However, if that situation drags on longer, and it seems that the employer is getting comfortable and he shows no clear plans or intentions of setting it right after the company has regained its footing, then clearly, these are causes for concern.

Work conditions

Unsafe workplaces and offices that pose potential physical harm and health problems to employees are also seen as valid reasons for a formal complaint. One of the best indicators of a company caring about its employees is the provision of a safe and clean working environment.

Are you provided with the tools necessary to carry out your tasks? Are you working with well-functioning tools, machinery and equipment? Is the workplace well-ventilated and properly lit? Needless to say, if these are not satisfactory, not only will they cause potential harm and injury to the employees, they will also bring about frustration and dissatisfaction.

Management-employee relations

In some cases, it is possible for you as an employee to feel a divide or a gap with management or your employer. Maybe you are having trouble gaining access to, and communicating with, the employer. One way to bridge that gap is to file a grievance.

Unions exist to represent the interest of the employees to the management, and their primary focus is on unfair labor practices that harm the relationship between the management and employees.

THE EMPLOYEE GRIEVANCE PROCESS

In order to handle employee grievances, there must be a set of procedures or a process to be followed. The process may vary depending on the company, specifically its culture. Usually, we hear of grievance procedures being developed as part of collective bargaining agreements or company policies designed as a means of internal dispute resolutions. These are often contained in companies’ Formal Grievance Procedures and employee Handbooks.

No matter what the differences are, however, these processes mostly follow a basic flow. The grievance process is set in motion once the grievance committee or HR has received the grievance of the employee in writing. Resolving it is done, generally, through a five-step process, as described below.

1. The supervisor or a manager takes informal action.

If you are the HR representative, or the person in charge of handling grievances in the company, you are supposed to inform the manager or supervisor that the employee directly reports to about it. You are basically letting them take the first step or first informal action, which is usually through a casual and discreet conversation with the employee who made the complaint.

The purpose of this informal action is to try to settle the problem early on, without involving other members of the grievance committee. Perhaps a resolution can be reached before the problem becomes more serious and the grievance reaches a higher stage.

It is also during this step that the grievance of the employee is acknowledged. The mere fact that you called the attention of his or her immediate supervisor is already an acknowledgement on your part that the employee has a grievance, and it has reached the proper eyes and ears. It is important to let the employee know that his thoughts or concerns are not being outright ignored, and that steps are going to be taken to address them.

The supervisor or the person having the talk with the employee should demonstrate sensitivity and the ability to actually listen to what the employee has to say. No matter how, initially, the complaint may seem silly or nonsensical, there is a need to treat it seriously.

If no settlement has been reached at this early stage, the grievance will proceed to the next step. Often, the employee will be required to submit a grievance letter to formalize the whole thing.

2. A formal meeting is held with the employee.

The formal stage of the process begins and, this time, the grievance committee will take the reins. You will schedule a formal meeting with the employee, and it is in that venue where his grievance will be discussed in greater detail.

  • The meeting should be held private. There are two parties that must be present during the meeting: you as a representative (and other representatives, if any) from the grievance committee and the employee who filed the grievance. In most cases, the employee may be accompanied by another co-worker.
  • Witnesses may be invited. In the course of conducting the meeting, you may deem it necessary to call or invite other employees as witnesses that may provide valuable input regarding the grievance.
  • Confidentiality is a must. The details about the meeting taking place must be kept under wraps, strictly among the people involved. Thus, the location of the meeting should also be kept off-limits to outsiders or uninvolved individuals.

The formal meeting is the appropriate venue to fully discuss the grievance of the employee, focusing on who, what, where, when, why and how the issue came to being. All accounts made by the employee as well as those of any witnesses during the meeting will be the basis in ascertaining whether the grievance is valid or not.

Depending on its nature and complexity, the grievance may be resolved at this step. If it’s not solved, the process proceeds to the third step.

3. Further investigation is conducted.

If the grievance is so complex that it cannot be resolved during the formal meeting, there is a need to conduct further investigation.

Fact and data gathering tasks are going to be conducted by members of the grievance committee. You may have already obtained more than the bare facts during the formal meeting, but those are mostly one-sided, since the input was mainly from the employee. There might be a need to verify some facts that will support any decision that will be made about validity of the complaint.

Usually, you will be going about it using the typical data-gathering methods, such as the conduct of interviews with other employees and key personalities to get more information that may shed some light on the grievance.

4. A decision is made and communicated to the employee.

The results of the formal meeting, and any further investigations conducted, will be the basis for the committee to decide whether the grievance is valid or not. Once a decision has been reached, you must communicate it to the employee.

It is important to keep the employee informed of the progress of the investigation – and the entire grievance management procedure – every step of the way. It’s a matter of fairness and respect for the employee, and to ensure transparency in how the grievance is being handled. This will also help him decide on the next steps to take regarding the complaint.

If the grievance is valid, it may be resolved at this stage and your job is done. If the resolution is not to the employee’s satisfaction, you may have to take it to the next step.

5. If the grievance is rejected, or it was resolved but the employee was not satisfied with the resolution, the grievance may be taken to the next level in the management hierarchy.

The facts will be reviewed, and a decision will again have to be made to resolve the grievance. If, again, it is not resolved at that stage, it will be taken to another, higher, level of management. It may even reach a point where an outsider will be called in to arbitrate and provide a fresh perspective.

The higher the level of management that the grievance goes up to, the more people will be involved. This is why, at the beginning, all efforts should be geared to settling the complaint as early as possible. This is because taking it further is bound to take more time and company resources.

HOW TO MANAGE EMPLOYEE GRIEVANCE

Resolving employee grievance is usually not an easy task. The one thing that will assure handling it effectively is to approach it systematically, and that is through following the employee grievance process.

On top of implementing a systematic grievance process, here are a few other things that you can do to ensure grievances of employees are properly managed and resolved.

Find a permanent solution.

Solve, do not troubleshoot. Your goal should be to come up with a solution that will, as much as possible, put the grievance brought by the employee to rest, rather than provide a temporary fix. A temporary fix is no solution at all, since the problem is bound to come up again, probably on a bigger scale, since the root cause is still there.

Therefore, your goal should be to eliminate the root cause of the problem. Remove the reason for the employee’s complaint.

Listen, and listen well.

Remember, all grievances put forth by employees must be heard and listened to. Even if they do not seem plausible at first, and even if they are brought up in very casual conversations, as if in passing. A complaint is a complaint, and it denotes dissatisfaction of an employee. No one wants a dissatisfied and frustrated employee.

It is important for people who are in charge of carrying out the grievance process to be good listeners. This is the first step toward finding a resolution to the grievance. By listening, you are also encouraging the employee to be more confident in resolving his complaint. If the employee feels that he is simply being patronized and that he is not being taken seriously, he might take his complaint outside the company, resulting in litigation that will prove to be far more tedious, costly, and damaging to the company and its reputation.

One mistake that you should avoid is to treat the employee with hostility and be wholly unwelcome about the fact that he is taking his concerns forward. Three possible outcomes can be expected from this scenario. The first may involve the employee cowering and slinking away with his complaints. He may even start to feel guilty about trying to air his complaints, and he will feel guarded around others. You will then find him still working, but with dissatisfaction that continuously eats away at him, eventually affecting his job performance and productivity.

The second possible outcome involves the courts, with the employee taking legal action against his employers if it is a violation that is against labor law. Finally, the employee can look for a different company to work for and you will have to restart the hiring process to look for a replacement.

Clearly, we know what choice the company will prefer. It’s bad rep if your business is suddenly painted as a company that is so problematic its own employees are taking it to court in a legal battle.

Respond quickly.

This pertains to how swift and decisive the action will be once the grievance has been received. Some companies may take their time and drag their feet, probably hoping that the passage of time will eventually convince the employee to just forget about his complaint and give it up. But this approach may backfire, and the employee may add another complaint to the list, and that is on the slow progress in the handling of his grievance.

Grievance proceedings should not be allowed to go on for months. Think about all the work that will be affected in the interim. Most likely, the employee will not be able to perform at his peak when it comes to his assigned tasks because a huge chunk of his attention is occupied by the question on when his concerns will be tackled by the grievance committee.

In the same vein, as discussed earlier, once a decision has been arrived at, communicating the decision to the employee should also be done quickly. Do not put it off for later.

Keep an open mind.

This is in line with acknowledging that a grievance exists, even if you are still in the process of determining whether it is valid or not. By showing skepticism and doubt, you are also showing that you already have prejudged the situation. This means that your objectivity will be shot, and the decision may not be as unbiased as you will later represent it to be.

Being antagonistic and hostile is also counterproductive. Anyone tasked to handle employee grievance must maintain a degree of independence from their employer. Throughout the whole process, you should keep an open mind and get all the facts before arriving at conclusions and making decisions. Leave all your prejudices outside the door whenever you are sitting down to investigate the facts.

Come up with alternative courses of actions.

It is not enough to come up with a single course of action to resolve the issue. As much as possible, identify other options, just so you will have alternatives in the event that the first course of action will not be acceptable to the concerned parties. This is so that you can cover all your bases and avoid wasting time in thinking of other solutions.

If you already have a number of alternatives to choose from, the time to resolve the issue – as well as the costs and resources involved –will be cut down considerably.

Keep all communication lines open.

And not just during the investigation period. The employee should be able to connect and communicate with you and the other members of the grievance committee throughout the whole process, and even when it is over and the issue has been resolved, in case there are other things to follow up on.

Be responsive whenever the employee reaches out to you. Schedule follow-up meetings when necessary, and ensure that the people involved are truly involved. Think of the grievance committee as one of the bridges that link employees to their employers, and if they are unable to communicate with the people in charge of handling grievances, then the essence of that “link” is gone.

Document every step of the grievance process.

This is very important, not just as a matter of record or for future reference, but to be kept apprised and up to date on the progress of the process. A similar grievance may crop up in the future, and so you already have something to start on.

The documentation will also come in handy when management decides to develop or improve its internal policies on personnel administration, worker and employee welfare, and similar management aspects and issues.

Establish and implement good policies on handling employee grievance.

Finally, the best thing that a company can do to handle employee grievances is to have a sound grievance machinery or system in place. This is to avoid complications in the future when employees file more complaints, because there is already a guide or a roadmap that can be followed by the grievance committee.

This is also an indication of the acceptance of the company that there are bound to be grievances in the future, so the most logical thing to do is to be prepared for them. This preparedness actually puts the company in a good light, since it shows that they do pay attention to their employees, and they are making every effort to ensure that their people remain satisfied under their employ.

Once these policies are established, it is even more important to see to it that they are fully and properly implemented. It will be a complete waste if perfectly sound grievance policies are there, but they are not used properly, so no problems are actually resolved. It goes without saying that post-implementation reviews must be conducted from time to time. The changing nature of the business landscape dictates that management must also ensure that policies are kept current and up to date.

Handling employee grievance is perhaps one of the most undesirable aspects of human resource and business management. However, it plays a very crucial role in ensuring the smooth flow of operations and business processes in a company.

All companies should aim for zero grievances from employees. In reality, however, this is too good to be true. What they can do is to handle these grievances smartly, swiftly and successfully, so that the normal operations of the business will not be disrupted, and the working environment remains harmonious.

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