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Grievance Handling Process in Organisations (2023)

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An employment relationship is characterised by happiness at one point and grievance at the other by both parties. When the employer is not happy, they take the disciplinary procedure. On the other hand, when the employee is unhappy with the actions of the supervisor or senior Management, they follow a grievance procedureThis article examines grievance handling in organisations. It is a well-known fact that if employees’ complaints are not attended to, they grow to become grievances which, if not handled effectively, would mature into full-fledged disputes involving trade unions and strikes. This post starts with clarifying the major concepts before looking at the causes of grievances and the processes involved.

Meaning of complaint and grievance

A complaint may include a problem or misunderstanding with a supervisor, a disagreement with the rating or content of one’s performance appraisal, among other things. An organisation must have a transparent system of raising employee complaints without fear of prejudice or deprivation from superiors. This promotes democracy in the workplace and improves employer-employee relations. A formal procedure must be adhered to in raising complaints to encourage fairness and uniformity in handling these complaints. On the other hand, a grievance is any dissatisfaction regarding work and workplace filed by an employee formally to their immediate supervisor (Rose, 2004). Issues of grievances are generally associated with dissatisfaction among employees related to working procedures, working facilities, confusion on provisions stated in the company’s policy, and the violation of provisions in the terms and conditions of employment stated in the collective agreement. Salamon (1992) says a grievance involves unresolved complaint and, in most cases, do affect several employees. Immediate supervisors are responsible for settling the grievances as they are the nearest personnel representing the managerial team

Causes of grievance

  1. Management Policies-wage rates, leave policy, overtime, lack of career planning, role conflicts, and lack of regard for a collective agreement. When Management discriminates and unequally pays wages for the same job, skill or qualification, this is a recipe for trouble. On the other hand, if a Lecturer who holds a degree qualification is paid at the same wage rate as a Lecturer who is a Diploma holder, this has the consequence of the degree holder Lecturer raising a grievance to the Principal. Leave policy issues can also cause resentment when there is discrimination in favour of some employees whilst discriminating against others. An employee has expectations of equal treatment with the rest of the other employees.
  2. Grievances are resulting from working conditions: poor safety and bad physical conditions; unavailability of tools and proper machinery; negative approach to discipline and unrealistic targets; violation by Management of the labour agreement or violation of the labour law. Lack of clear cut company policies on labour matters may cause confusion or misunderstanding on the part of employees, especially when there is no union to protect their interest.
  3. Grievances result from interpersonal factors- poor relationships with team members; dictatorial leadership style of superiors, poor relations with seniors and conflicts with peers and colleagues. All these are areas of potential grievances. Grievances also arise due to ambiguous contractual language that creates differing interpretations, application and administration of its provision. Perceived unfair treatment of the employee by the supervisor or ineffective or inadequate supervision; refusing to listen to employees’ complaints, unjust or inconsistent disciplinary actions, giving vague or unclear instructions, activities, or failure to keep the employee informed.

Grievance handling procedure

The grievance redressal process provides a systematic process for hearing and evaluating employee grievances. It also protects the rights of employees and eliminates the need for strikes every time a disagreement occurs about the employment contract. Its goal is to help employees perform better. Thus, grievance handling procedure is more than a means of managing conflict; an understanding and effective use of the system may, according to experts, improve the labour–management relationship. 

The grievance redressal process is a procedure specified in a collective bargaining agreement to resolve disputes arising out of the life of the contract. According to Sean (2009), the grievance procedure has four primary roles: a compliance role, a judicial and adjudicative role; an administrative role; and a ‘fractional bargaining’ role. According to Sibanda (2000), grievance procedures are a means workers can express unhappiness with the employer’s deeds or other employee’s actions. The grievance redressal process also assumes several secondary roles, including; The mechanism for the expansion of relations between the parties; Union tactics to force management for strategic purposes; A diagnostic tool to uncover problems in the workplace; A mechanism for individual employees or union officials to challenge management in a range of working conditions; And a forum for communication of information. Thus, employees initiate the grievance process to their employer. Union representatives can also create, file or present grievances, either about their rights as unions or regarding the rights of employees, whether collective or individual.

The following are the stages for handling grievances:

  • An employee who has a complaint or claim should submit this to his / her immediate supervisor. The location is all about verbally receiving and defining the grievance from the grieved. If the firm is unionised, submitting the grievance is done to the employee’s union representative. The union steward and supervisor must see that grievances are presented only when there is a factual basis for complaint or a need for a decision. Suppose the supervisor or union representative is convinced that the worker does not have a real case. In that case, it is better to tell the employee right away or advise them accordingly. In non-unionised firms, the presentation of a grievance by an employee to the supervisor is expected to settle the problem within the specified period of 48 hours. If the employee is not satisfied, they can take the grievance or dispute to the next level to resolve the grievance. The next in authority is expected to answer within 72 hours. When grievance and conflict occur between workers within the organisation, there should be a negotiation between the disputants to agree or settle the opposing demands or attitudes. The idea is to approach the person with whom you have the grievance as soon as possible. The stage allows most grievances to be handled between the parties concerned. The process also empowers both parties to turn potential opponents into problem-solving partners. If the employee cannot discuss the matter with their immediate supervisor, the Human Resources department may be contacted first for assistance and advice by the aggrieved person.
  • When informal negotiations have failed to resolve the grievance or conflict, each party is required to present verbally and in writing their understanding of the dispute and what has led to it. The Head of the department or Departmental representative will use conflict resolution techniques to achieve an equitable solution. We will do this by consulting separately with the parties and then in a joint discussion to develop a solution that will satisfy all parties. The company, a management representative and supervisor should get the fact(s) by handling the case as though it may eventually result in arbitration. This can be done by checking the provision of the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement, the company policy, the law and Acts and a careful examination of the employee’s record. It is essential to find out where things have gone wrong and who is at fault. It is also necessary and ideal to gather information from the union representative on what they have to say. 
  • The grievance goes to the grievance committee – the answer should be given within 7days, and the Management’s final decision is expected to be communicated within three days after receiving the recommendations from the grievance committee. At this stage, it is paramount for the parties involved to examine all the evidence before making a decision carefully, and lengthy delays need to be avoided.
  • The Manager or CEO would take cognisance of the recommendations from the grievance committee. Suppose parties have agreed on an amicable solution. In that case, the manager has to make a follow-up to make sure that the plan of action is appropriately carried out by correcting conditions that would result in a similar grievance happening again. Some grievances can be significant or to be of a nature that requires the inclusion of all stakeholders in the employment relationship to ensure that the company itself does not resolve the grievance.
  • This stage represents a step of serious business with the Union and the Management as the matter might mean change of policy, renegotiation of the best amicable measure to resolve the grievance or conflict. 
  • This usually represents the final in the grievance handling process. Arbitration is a quasi-judicial process in which the parties agree to submit any unresolved dispute to a neutral third party for a binging settlement. The scope of voluntary arbitration considers issues; unresolved grievances arising from Collective Bargaining Agreement, unresolved grievances arising from personnel policy enforcement and interpretation, including disciplinary cases. Generally, the problem or matter may be taken to arbitration for a final decision if no satisfactory solution has been reached by the stages above.

Strengths of a grievance procedure

According to Coleman (1990), the grievance procedure helps settle differences of opinion. From the workers’ perspective, the grievance procedure reduces pressure and anxiety, enables them to complain about dignity and protects them from arbitrary actions of Management. In addition, when the system is capped by binding arbitration, it reduces the threat of slowdown and wildcat strikes because disputes can be resolved without resorting to costly and often unlawful actions. Dubin (1965) further says that grievance management standardises or reduces conflict between Management and union in non-violent ways and provides another benefit by arguing that it gives the subordinate a right and not merely an opportunity to question their supervisor’s judgment decision. There are numerous advantages to an employer and an employee if disciplinary procedures are followed and adhered to consistently. Gerger (1998) provide some of these advantages. It contributes to the stability of the workforce; labour turnover is minimised, and it promotes productivity. Besides, it is advantageous to an employee because arbitrary dismissal is avoided, and those in a position to dismiss employees have a strong sense of responsibility and, therefore, ensure a fair disciplinary process. Lastly, employees need not automatically distrust every manager and dismissal and corrective measures. Again, indiscipline is managed properly because mismanagement of disciplinary cases induces numerous problems like high labour turnover, demotivation of staff, loss of trust in Management, reduction in production, and increased chances of indiscipline. 

From the above benefits, it is clear that the employees must be accorded all the necessary opportunities to air out their complaints of issues that create great concern and uncertainties. Besides, the procedures assist managers to understand subordinates’ complaints and responding to their time before they escalate to uncontrollable levels.

Without grievance procedures, Management may not respond to the employees’ concerns since managers are unaware of them. Therefore, a formal grievance procedure is a valuable tool in an organisation.

Challenges to the grievance procedure

The significant weaknesses relate to cost, both in money and in time. The complaint handling process is costly and disruptive as production is disrupted when the complainant and supervisor are fired from their regular jobs for participating in the process. According to Stessin (2007), the grievance handling process has lost much of its virtue, neither economical nor quick nor flexible nor informal. The evidence is that the system has succumbed to the rise of rigidity and is often incorrectly designed to serve as a quick means of resolving disputes between workers and bosses. From the employee’s perspective, the most significant weaknesses may be the delay in processing the grievance and the cumbersomeness of the process itself, both of which may discourage employees from using the grievance process.

The most commonly faulted aspect of the grievance process is the presence of third-party, binding arbitration, which puts limitations on the rights of Management. From the union’s perspective, it may mean some loss of control over workplace issues. Thus, collaboration and Management must surrender their “ownership” of the case to an outside third party. In some instances, moreover, the point of binding, third-party arbitration may be detrimental to harmonious employments relations.

There is a tendency by Management and employees to create an obstacle to the grievance handling process. According to Ross (2009), differing expectations that the various stakeholders have for the process bring the greatest challenge to the grievance procedure. Suppose these expectations are diverse or severe enough. In that case, the effectiveness and utility of the grievance handling procedure can be undermined because the parties may ultimately lose respect for the process. 

Employees expect the procedure to provide a speedy resolution to the grievances of the workplace. Yet, this expectation may conflict with that of Management, who must concern themselves with precedent and prefer a consistent and careful examination of the issue to a quick decision. Moreover, employees expect the grievance process to provide the right to protest and protection against unfair managerial action and therefore expect an appeal function that provides access to decision-makers not initially involved in the issue or decision. Yet this can conflict with the expectation of Management because it may be interpreted as a threat to their authority (Thomson, 2009)

According to Thomson (2009), the grievance handling process may present the most significant source of frustration to lower-level Management. This is because lower-level managers desire the most important degree of autonomy and flexibility in the operation of their departments and, in this regard, the appeals process of the grievance handling process and senior Management’s desire to use it to ensure compliance with corporate policy undermine their authority. Finally, when issues arise with broad policy implications, lower-level managers often prefer to pass the grievance upwards in the grievance procedure to avoid being reversed at a higher level. This reluctance of lower-level managers to rule on broad policy grievances can contribute to an overloading of the grievance procedure and increase the length of time to settlement. 

Some grievances handling problems are caused by managers and supervisors who lack essential people management skills such as communication, leadership, conflict management, counselling, decision-making and discipline. The handling of grievance is a skill that is trained or that one possesses to complete the cycle effectively and efficiently. The workers’ representatives also need to be trained in the grievance handling process for substantive and procedural issues. The failure may result in mishandling of cases with courts ordering reinstatement of individuals, creating a lousy labour relations environment, negatively impacting the organisation’s image.

Employers also face the challenge of failure to handle grievances promptly, somewhat and firmly and without delay. The delays result in labour unrest or more workers breaking and lodging grievances culminating in problems or strikes, which would not have emerged if the workers knew quickly where the employer stood. Workers gain confidence in the system if their grievances are handled fairly and firmly. The delay could also result in: resentment growing into a bigger problem, employee motivation going down, and supervisors might be seen unconcerned with the employee’s welfare.

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