Managing Grievances

The Grievance Icebergs

When the phone rings and an anxious voice asks if we have experience of grievances, it’s rarely finished with some quick advice. Often, it’s the start of a journey. We’ve taken a number of those calls – and dealt with a variety of cases. No matter how simple they seem, almost every grievance case has hidden depths and complexities.

Of course, the details are confidential, but these cases offer lessons well worth sharing:

1. Stick to the agreed process

One case involved reviewing the grievance process 10 months after staff complained about bullying and harassment by a senior manager. Nobody was happy with the results, so we moved in to investigate the sequence of events. Time had passed and people had moved on making it a difficult process, but the crux of the issue was that the board tried to make it all ‘go away’ – only succeeding in entrenching positions and creating an untenable situation. This could have been avoided with a few steps:

  • Install good governance and robust leadership. The board were neither decisive nor impartial and lost sight of both their role and a process that was already in place.
  • Deal with complaints quickly. Delays caused frustration and inaccuracy. It also transpired that the grievance was lodged after other issues had gone unanswered for too long.
  • Follow a process. The management made assumptions and didn’t investigate the issue thoroughly. As such, the process was fundamentally flawed, creating a rift that couldn’t be healed. The organisation finally had to withdraw services – a sad end to the tale.

2. Culture is ingrained and cannot be ignored

When the grievance letter has 28 signatories, the case is always going to be a challenge. 55 witness statements later, the story was well told: two managers tried to change the culture of an organisation, treading on a lot of toes in the process. Many of the issues raised could have seemed petty or unimportant in isolation, but together they built a compelling case of undervalued professionals. The culture meant a lot to them, so when these managers disregarded key values it created problems that couldn’t be ignored. Again, this offers some interesting points:

  • Investigation is useful in itself. Giving your people a chance to share concerns doesn’t just help you understand what’s happening in your business, but can also be a cathartic experience for all involved.
  • Early signs of discontent can’t be ignored. When managing change, it’s tempting to write off others’ frustration as a teething problem. The board had recognised the signs – they just hadn’t acted.
  • Values and traditions are important. Some things really matter to people, so change should start by identifying and holding onto the positives.

3. The truth can hurt

It started with a simple call and seemed like a few meetings would take care of things. A grievance has been raised, but the protagonist was adamant about their innocence and had the confidence of key colleagues. But once we looked into the situation in depth, we found hard evidence of misconduct and inappropriate behaviour. Their certainty collapsed and they retreated quickly. The lesson here is simple:

  • Grievances are rarely as they seem. The initial complaints are often just the tip of the iceberg. And it’s what beneath the surface that can cause the most damage.

Investigating any grievance can be fascinating, offering insights into life at work. Our approach is centred on gathering as much information as possible and involves taking our clients on the journey with us – finding a way around obstacles together. It needs time and full cooperation, but it delivers results.

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