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Handling an employee grievance

Published 04 November 2019

Dealing with a formal employee complaint effectively is crucial as it can make-or-break a working relationship.

A grievance should be addressed fairly and without unreasonable delay with the aim being to resolve it as soon as possible.

Grievances are concerns, problems or complaints that employees raise with their employer.

All employers should have a formal written grievance procedure, which has been communicated to staff and is available to them.

The ACAS Code of Practice provides basic practical guidance for employers and employees and sets out principles for handling disciplinary and grievance situations in the workplace (1)

Employment Tribunals are legally required to take the Code into account in relevant cases. It means if an employer unreasonably fails to follow its guidance, a tribunal can increase any award by up to 25 per cent.

The importance of the Code in disciplinary and grievance matters is highlighted in the case of a head chef jailed for 18 months for attacking police officers, breaking the finger of one, biting the leg of another officer and spitting blood at them.

He was dismissed while in prison, but was awarded more than £11,000 because the employer did not follow a fair procedure (2).

On the face of it the case appears clear-cut, but it highlights the perils and costly pitfalls of failing to carry out a reasonable disciplinary or grievance procedure.

The grounds for grievance can vary widely and include bullying, harassment, discrimination, unlawful deduction of wages, unfavourable treatment for being a whistle-blower or any other form of unfair treatment.

As with any problem, it is always better if it can be resolved without the need for formal action. Most grievance procedures will advise, as a first step, to try and resolve the matter informally if it is practicable and possible to do so.

If an informal attempt to address the grievance is not suitable or unsuccessful, the next step will be to arrange a formal grievance hearing.

An employee has a statutory right to be accompanied at a grievance hearing by a work colleague or trade union representative (3).

At the hearing the employee should be given the opportunity to fully explain their grievance, provide any evidence to support their case, be invited to explain how they would like their issue to be resolved and say what outcome they are seeking (4).

In regards as to how the meeting should be conducted the ACAS Code advises:  In smaller organisations, grievances can sometimes be taken as personal criticism – employers should be careful to hear any grievance in a calm and objective manner, consider it impartially and be fair to the employee in seeking a resolution of the problem.

Employers should take time to investigate the grievance and speak to witnesses and those implicated in the matter.

Although there is an expectation that a grievance investigation should be completed without ‘unreasonable delay’, delays are often unavoidable.

If the investigation takes longer than expected the employee should be kept informed of its progress. There is nothing worse for an employee, having submitted a grievance, than to feel as if they are being ignored.

Once the investigation is complete a decision will have to be taken whether to uphold the grievance in full or in part or reject it.

The reasons for the decision should be fully explained in an outcome letter. If the grievance is upheld, or partly upheld, the employee should be informed of what action will be taken.

If the employee is unhappy with the outcome they should be given the right to appeal (5). At an appeal hearing, the employer should review the reasons for the appeal and consider any new evidence.

The employee should be provided with a written appeal outcome explaining the reasons for the findings

It is not uncommon for an employee having exhausted the grievance process to remain feeling aggrieved. If an employee does not accept the outcome, they can pursue mediation or make a claim to an employment tribunal.


1 - ACAS code of practice [Internet] [Cited 31.10.19]

2 - Unfair Dismissal Award [Internet] [Cited 31.10.19]

3 - Trade Union representation at a grievance hearing [Internet] [Cited 31.10.19]

4 - At the hearing [Internet] [Cited 31.10.19]

5 - Unhappy with outcome, right to appeal [Internet] [Cited 31.10.19]


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For employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 

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