Airing Out Grievances

Nov. 19, 2021

Having an effective system in place to handle employee grievances can prevent problems before they even happen.

In an ideal world, a shop, the employees and manager would be able to operate smoothly and work well together every day without issue. Unfortunately, workplace conflict happens and in some places, it can be all too common.  

Barbara Holland, an advisor with the Society for Human Resource Management, says it’s critical to have a grievance system in place and to make sure employees both know how to use it and that they can trust it.

“If employees feel like they don’t have a voice, you’re not really going to create a trusting environment,” Holland says. 

Actively listening to employees’ concerns and having a system in place to adequately handle those complaints, Holland says, can create a much more positive work environment and prevent issues before they even happen.

As told to Noah Brown

Typically what you'll find when an employee has concerns or a complaint, it can be any number of things. It can be about pay, benefits, workload, favoritism, actual discrimination, growth opportunities or so many other things.  It could be actual bullying or discrimination in the workplace. All of these are valid concerns and could become major problems if they’re not directly addressed. Employees have to know where they can bring those concerns and that they will be taken seriously.

Having a set system in place for dealing with complaints and more formal grievances is important for two reasons.

One, when you have a work environment where people feel comfortable, where there's trust, then they're going to be happier. Employees are going to come to work feeling valued. They're going to feel heard, and if you take them seriously and they have a voice, they just feel like they're part of it. They're part of that organization. They're part of the solutions on a day-to-day basis. Two, you don’t want to end up with a grievance such as a discrimination claim so big that you end up facing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or end up in court over a given issue, so having a grievance system in place can help mitigate those risks.

Nip It in the Bud

Those are the “big ticket” items people are concerned about, but employee grievances or general unhappiness can be a detriment to your business on a day-to-day basis without manifesting themselves like that. The day-to-day is what most affects people and it can affect your turnover.

If you have supervisors and managers who are open, who are transparent, who explain why they do things and are comfortable with somebody pushing back, people are more willing to come forward and they're more willing to bring things to your attention that might be of concern. And they may actually bring something to you that you didn't even know was an issue or could become an issue. A lot of that has to do with how the manager is interacting with people and their attitude towards their staff.

Employees need to know where they can raise their concerns, how they will get resolved and that they will be taken seriously.

Simple Structure, Effective Results

We recommend a structure in which an employee will talk to their manager first, oftentimes in a more informal way. If the employee doesn’t feel completely satisfied with the outcome, having a more formal process where an employee can file a written complaint clearly explaining their issue and how they would like it resolved helps. It’s a little more objective, and if an employer is following our recommendations, they have an obligation to respond, talk to people, gather information and make a more formal decision on how to resolve an issue. 

The easiest way to deal with any grievance is to listen and to actually care about your workers. Ideally if you're doing all of that, you're not going to get to a written point. Even just having a formal grievance filing process and letting employees know about it make them feel more comfortable, and you’ll be able to deal with issues before they blow up into something bigger. You don’t have to spend a whole lot of time on it for it to make a difference.

“Grievance” is a big, jarring word, and obviously no employer wants to have to go through a situation in which an employee has filed a formal grievance against them or a coworker. Having that conversation, though, and having a system in place helps create a culture that will help prevent a grievance from being filed in the first place.