It doesn't matter how friendly everyone on staff is with one another, an employee grievance is bound to happen at some point. While most issues can be worked out between the people involved, some problems can flare up into a much bigger complaint, resulting in potential loss of productivity, the creation of an unpleasant work environment and the need for mediation between parties. When something like this happens, it's important that you quickly take appropriate steps to mitigate the issue and address any formal complaint you receive.
To help you understand the do's and don'ts of dealing with workplace grievances, we reached out to other members of the small business community to see what worked – or didn't work – for them.
Types of workplace grievances
When people come together, disagreements and conflicts inevitably arise. In modern workplaces, some kinds of grievances are more prevalent than others. According to the Communications Workers of America, grievances fall into three main categories:
An individual grievance affects one person. Individual grievances can involve a pay dispute, or it can be more complicated, such as a complaint of harassment.
A group grievance involves an issue or complaint that is corroborated by multiple impacted individuals.
Sometimes called a union grievance, a policy grievance involves an overarching problem with company operations. A common example is pay negotiation. Where policy grievances differ from individual or group grievances is that with a policy grievance, you may have employees who were adversely affected by the issue or concern of the complaint but who were not involved in filing the grievance.
How to deal with a workplace grievance
Whether your employees are squabbling among themselves or airing a much larger grievance with a human resource professional, it's important that the situation is addressed in a timely manner. No one likes to let ill feelings linger, and no one wants to spend their time wading through a formal grievance procedure.
Address issues as early as possible.
Jennifer Koch, human resources manager at Optima Office, believes that issues should ideally be addressed before the parties enter the grievance process, requiring some form of intervention or mediation. Since that isn't always an option, "timeliness is of the essence," she said.
Investigate grievances thoroughly.
"Make sure that the issue is investigated as confidentially as is possible, all evidence is collected, all employees involved are heard in a formal meeting and then make a decision swiftly," said Koch. "You will most likely have employees coming in each day inquiring about the outcome, [so] make sure the decision is communicated clearly to all involved parties."
Include third parties when necessary.
While management should be able to handle problems themselves, sometimes the grievance comes from an issue that a staff member has with their employer. If that's the case, a third party could be brought in to fairly consider both sides of the issue.
Jack Wang, CEO of Amazing Beauty Hair, said failing to be impartial during a workplace dispute only worsens matters. As an employer, "you would want to be non-artisan as much as possible. Showing that you are taking sides may only aggravate the situation," said Wang.
Wang also suggests that any formal procedure or investigation should have a thoroughly documented record of its findings.
"Having a record would come in handy for future grievances of the same nature," said Wang. "Plus, it … always pay[s] to have notes around, especially when you need to get back on certain details."
Conduct a thorough assessment once the dispute is resolved.
Once a dispute is settled, it's important that management conducts a thorough investigation on how things went. Being able to locate weak points throughout the process while finding ways to eliminate them not only makes things better for the company, but it engenders a workplace environment where employees are more willing to bring up their issues instead of looking for work elsewhere.
"After the grievance is over, I would go back and review the issue and the decision made to see if anything could have been handled differently or if there is any room for improvement," Koch said. "In the end, make sure you have gotten to the root of the cause, so it does not come back up again, and it is a long-lasting solution."
How not to deal with a workplace grievance
Addressing issues as they happen is paramount, but there are ways you can go about it that exacerbate the problem. One way, Wang said, is being too quick to make a determination. "You can't make any judgments without any basis," he said.
Drag out investigations
Conducting a proper investigation into the matter is imperative, said Wang, but you don't want to be too slow about it either, since "dragging it [out] for too long won't be good for the company, the aggrieved parties [or] for anybody."
Leak issues to everyone
As a manager, it's also important that you do not let details of an ongoing issue leak to the general workforce. Sometimes these issues surrounding an employee complaint can be the result of very personal problems that the affected employees do not want their co-workers to know about.
When dealing with sensitive topics in particular, Dana Case, director of operations at MyCorporation.com, urged that these issues be dealt with in a confidential manner.
"If you are in a position where you're overseeing what is being said, do not repeat it to anyone else," she said. "Subsequently, employees with workplace grievances should also take their concerns to the appropriate point of contact first. Do not vent on social media accounts prior to making an official complaint."
Dismiss grievances as "minor"
Regardless of how big or small the issue may sound, Jon Hill, chairman and CEO of The Energists, said every issue should be dealt with by a professional, since the issue may impact more than just the one or two employees that brought the problem up.
"It can be tempting to dismiss grievances as minor because only one person has brought it up, but keep in mind, not everyone will voice their concerns through official channels," he said. "If one employee is expressing concern, odds are good many more are experiencing the same problem in silence."
Laura Handrick, a contributing HR professional at Choosing Therapy, agreed with Hill, stating that small and unaddressed employee grievances "can become major workplace distractions and may rise to the level of discrimination or harassment."
"Once a grievance is aired, it needs to be documented, researched and resolved," she said. "Failure to do so may result in hefty employer fines and in the worst-case scenario, lawsuits that run into the hundreds of thousands."
Actions you can take today to prevent a workplace grievance
While it's important to know what to do in the moment, it's also worth noting that many of these issues can either be avoided or at least dealt with before the problem boils over. For instance, a good employee handbook will already have policies in place to address workplace grievances, as well as an outline as to how they get resolved.
David Reischer, an employment attorney at LegalAdvice.com, said enacting such policies within an employee handbook not only codify your method but also make those steps known to an employee as soon as they're being onboarded to the company.
"An employee handbook should include the basics about the company, and the policies and procedures for compliance within the organization on a day-to-day basis," he said. "Beyond the requirements under various and state federal laws for filing a workplace-related grievance, an organization should implement a whistleblower system that allows for the anonymous reporting of any wrongdoing."
In order to do that, you could establish a 24-hour, all-year hotline telephone number to anonymously collect such complaints. With the telephone number displayed prominently within the workspace and handbook, employees should easily understand the resources available to them.
In addition to a whistleblower policy, Case suggests creating an "open-door policy" that engenders a connection between employees and their supervisors.
"Many employees often shy away from going to their bosses with complaints because they do not feel confident management will listen to what they have to say," she said. "There should be an open-door policy that designates at least one manager or HR rep in the company for employees to turn to with concerns."
These kinds of policies can generally be part of any collective bargaining agreement, so if your employees are involved in a union, you should absolutely discuss any formal policy with their union representative.
Creating a culture of transparency within a company can often help smooth over any workplace concerns before they become a major problem.
"HR professionals should keep the employee who raised the issue in the loop on what's being done, especially if it's not an instant fix," he said. "After changes have been implemented, it's also important to reach out and determine whether the problem was adequately addressed, soliciting feedback on how the process and solution both could be improved. Employees who have grievances should be similarly open and honest with HR about the efficacy of implemented solutions."