Legal-ease: Handling grievances

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​Dealing with grievances is an unenviable task for any HR professional, particularly when allegations are widespread and indicate a toxic culture

There is no quick fix to toxicity in a team, and significant investigative work is often needed to get to the root of the cause, which may be deep-seated and endemic.

Discretion will be expected, but appeasement should not trump action, and allegations must not be swept under the carpet. Wheels should be put in motion behind the scenes.

It’s vital to invest time and resources in understanding where any identified bad behaviour has originated from – particularly when there are multiple complaints. HR professionals should seek to understand how deep the issue is, whether it is a cultural problem, perhaps a personality issue, or even a training problem.

A thorough investigation will avoid assumptions and poorly-drawn conclusions. This equips the organisation with the information and insight to begin building a more positive culture, while preventing potentially expensive legal wrangles and damaging reputational issues.

Sometimes those investigations unmask an entrenched lack of trust between management and the rest of the business. On other occasions we find that management struggles with an absence of authority, and as a result they simply aren’t listened to.

In the trickiest situations management is part of the problem, meaning that external support may be needed to complete investigations and formulate a strategy to tackle entrenched views and culture.

HR must not be viewed as a management tool. To tackle grievances effectively an organisation should have a handbook detailing the correct policies and procedures. Managers should be trained in using the policies and staff must be aware of it.

Every employee, regardless of their seniority, must understand what is expected from them – their conduct, behaviour and attitude. The handbook is the company Bible.

Expectations must be clearly communicated – no matter how obvious they may seem – and policies must be active and visibly policed. Where the issue is cultural the solution will be threefold: education, setting standards and then enforcing those standards.

Decisive action is essential as soon as the facts have been established. It’s important to set an example, making clear that behaviour such as bullying or unequal treatment will not be tolerated.

The appropriate response to a grievance will depend on the individual circumstances, but a range of recommendations and potential sanctions should be laid out in the handbook. In cases of bullying rapid action is essential, using the disciplinary procedure while monitoring confidentiality.

Where behaviour has been physical or someone’s health has been affected dismissal may be appropriate to consider. In other cases the relationship might be salvageable through a practical and sensible performance improvement plan and training.

Fast and determined action is essential to prevent an organisation appearing indifferent, uncaring or ineffective.

Sarah Evans is an employment law partner at JMW Solicitors

This piece appears in the March 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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