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When is a grievance formal?

Published 22 October 2018

From time to time an employee will have good cause to complain.

It may be a justified grumble about a colleague, a moan about working conditions or a serious complaint about inappropriate behaviour.

For an employer identifying if the complaint is a formal grievance, and should be treated as such, is vital.

A grievance is a concern, problem or complaint that an employee reports to their employer (1).

Some grievances can often be resolved by having a few words with the right people. But what happens when this is not possible or does not work?

There are some issues such as bullying, discrimination and health and safety matters, which are clearly grievances, and likely to require a full investigation.

Employers will no doubt be aware by now that a failure to effectively and fairly deal with such grievances can prove costly.

Earlier this year an employment  tribunal ruled that two prison workers were unfairly dismissed after they unsuccessfully tried to resolve their safety concerns using the grievance process (2).

Other concerns, for example a complaint from a member of staff upset about foul language used by colleagues in general, may be sorted out informally (3). Employers should always consider alternative ways of solving problems.

Grievances can often be settled quickly and easily in the course of everyday working life. Where practicable and suitable an informal attempt should be made to address a grievance

Inevitably this approach will not always work. If this is the case then the employee will need to make it clear that they wish to pursue a formal grievance.

There is no legally binding process that both parties must adhere to in raising and handling a formal grievance. However, it is prudent to follow the guidance set out in the ACAS Code of Practice for Disciplinary and Grievance Procedure (4).

An organisation’s grievance policy should comply with the Code. An employer’s grievance process should be made readily available to all employees and be detailed in the company handbook or provided upon request from the HR department.

If the complaint is set out in writing it can then be considered a formal grievance. The letter or email should provide the grounds for the grievance and explain why the individual feels aggrieved.

The written grievance should make it clear that the employee wishes to raise a formal grievance. It should also include details of the treatement complained about for example unfair new working practices, bullying, health and safety, discrimination.

Some grievance letters can be long and very detailed, because of the emotion involved in the matter complained about. Other grievance letters may be brief and to the point.

The important thing to remember when a grievance is made formal is that the grievance hearing (5) provides an ideal opportunity for an employee to fully explain their complaint, and for the employer to seek any necessary clarification.

The decision for an employee to raise a formal grievance is not one that is usually taken lightly. Help and support in explaining and clarifying the matter/s complained about at the hearing can be helpful for both employee and employer.

Workers have a statutory right to be accompanied by a companion at a formal grievance meeting (6).

The companion may be:

  • a fellow worker (i.e. another of the employer’s workers)
  • an official employed by a trade union
  • a workplace trade union representative, as long as they have been certified in writing by their union has having had experience.

The companion can address the meeting, respond on behalf of the worker to any views expressed at the meeting and confer with the worker during the hearing. This type of support can help to bring much needed clarity to a formal grievance.



1.Dealing with grievances at work [Internet]. [cited 2018 Oct 13]. Available from:

2.Shaw D. Jail pair fired for raising safety fears. 2018 Mar 12 [cited 2018 Oct 13]; Available from:

3.Percival IG-MPU of T| H. Informal Grievances - Making Proper Use of Them | Howes Percival [Internet]. [cited 2018 Oct 13]. Available from:

4.Code Of Practice - Discipline & Grievance In The Workplace [Internet]. 2009 [cited 2018 Oct 13]. Available from:

5.Grievance hearing | Acas advice and guidance. 2012 Dec 17 [cited 2018 Oct 14]; Available from:

6.Legal Corner: Right to Trade Union Representation [Internet]. Castle Associates Ltd. 2014 [cited 2018 Oct 14]. Available from:


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A reputation built on success

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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