Tackling grievances and disputes

28 April 2005 by
Tackling grievances and disputes

<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /?> The problem with grievances is that it's very easy for managers to disregard them. It's simple to attribute grumbles or disputes to troublemakers or to the "six of one, half a dozen of the other" category, before investigating them. To some managers, good people don't have problems. The formal grievance procedure is seen as a challenge to their "I'm always approachable" authority. But managers cannot simply look the other way.

At any one time in any organisation there will be a degree of dissatisfaction. While it is impossible to get rid of grievances altogether, it's clearly the management's task to minimise and contain them.

It's not just the complexity of grievances that counts, but also their level, whether they relate to an individual, a group or the whole workforce.

Prevention is better than cure, but if you have a problem there must be some way to settle it without damaging the operation. The key elements in prevention are knowing the patterns of conflict (labour turnover, absenteeism, stoppages etc), the behaviour of supervisors and junior managers, and the organisation's operating policies, particularly personnel. The key element in resolving conflicts is the use of an authentic dispute and grievance procedure.

Click here for information on how the Employment Act 2002 (Dispute Resolution) Regulations 2004 affect grievance procedures.

Preventing grievances

High labour turnover
The hotel and catering industry is known for high levels of labour turnover. The levels are so high that most conflicts tend to be attributed to this problem. Two reasons for high levels of turnover are the need for flexibility in the number of workers to match variations in demand and the need for a variety of skills gained by experiencing different workplaces.

The first step to solving the labour problem is recognising the type of problem you have. Three areas of concern are:

  • The arbitrary behaviour of supervisors and managers: Shift work means that employees often work with more than one supervisor, and each supervisor will have their own ideas about what is meant by good work. These inconsistencies can lead to workers quitting.
  • The induction crisis: Workers often leave within a short period because either the job is not what they expected or it is incompatible with their non-work life. In general, recruiters focus on the person's ability to do the job, but neglect to find out whether the person has really thought about how the job will affect them.
  • Distribution of effort and rewards: People expect to be rewarded for producing more or staying longer. In a company that has both temporary and permanent workers, there is a big problem in deciding how to reward temporary workers so that they become permanent, while not upsetting already permanent staff.

Behaviour of supervisors and junior managers The way that the supervisors and junior managers behave does to some extent affect the level of morale and contentment. Given how imprecise work contracts are for service workers, there is a greater than normal probability of misunderstandings. Supervisors and junior managers need to be trained in people-handling skills.

Policies that help prevent grievances Try to avoid some of the problems discussed by implementing these policies:

  • Knowing the house rules: After the induction process these often get forgotten. Many problems occur over a misinterpretation of rules. Therefore access to the rules will help, and if necessary, an independent interpretation, possibly by the personnel manager
  • Individual differences: It's wise to choose people carefully to avoid friction based on comparisons of effort
  • Distribution of effort and rewards: Give guidelines to departmental managers on this, making clear divisions between the status of those in training and those who are competent. Also set out the privileges of long service
  • Irregular hours of work: Even if consumer demand is irregular, work can be organised on a continuous basis
  • Promotion and training: Give well-organised training and promotion opportunities
  • Pay system: Make this easy to understand
  • Pay and benefits: Offer competitive rates.

Grievance and dispute procedures

There's a certain irony in the fact that neither managers nor workers are keen to use the formal procedure. Managers see it as a slight on their authority and workers don't trust the system because it always supports management authority.

The real merits of the formal procedure are, first, that they force resolutions to be on the lines of some fair principles or precedents. Second, it's healthier for the company in the long run than an informal settlement. Informal approaches can sometimes be preferable, but these can be dangerous as they are open to misinterpretation and can end up being expensive.

How a procedure affects a grievance

  • It helps to identify those to whom the grievance should be put and those who may be approached for assistance.
  • It may help to clarify the issue if the person with the grievance has to write it down or explain it to a representative.
  • It may help to obtain appropriate information.
  • It may speed up resolution as it specifies time limits and ensures only those with the right authority are involved.
  • By requiring that records be kept, it lessens the chances of ambiguous customs and practices becoming involved.
  • It reduces the level of emotion involved.

Designing a procedure The problem when designing grievance procedures is how to reconcile speed of resolution with consistency of justice.

Procedures have a number of dimensions. First, they have stages which follow a set order. At each stage, there is an attempt to resolve the grievance. Second, there are levels of authority which are applied to the stages. For example, the first two stages may attempt to resolve the grievance at supervisory level, after which the remaining stages move to a higher level of authority. Third, at any stage representation or arbitration may be imposed. Fourth, there is the matter of formality, and, finally, there are time limits in order to prevent unfair delays.

Key issues in designing a procedure:

  • Place of the terminal stage
  • Time limits on stages
  • Roles of participants
  • Recording of procedure stages
  • Scope of the procedure
  • Representation
  • Procedure differentiation (some problems may need different procedures)

It is usually the job of someone in personnel to make sure that the procedure works. Where a union is recognised, it is essential to specify the point in the system when union representation takes place and the point where the dispute can go to arbitration. These matters are the subject of negotiation.

This is an edited version of Grievance and dispute management, taken from the book Managing People by Michael Riley, published by Butterworth-Heinemann. To order your copy from our online bookshop, click here.


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