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When a row at work turns into a grievance

What’s a grievance? Dictionaries define it as a complaint resulting from a cause of distress or annoyance. In the workplace, any employee has a legal right to raise a grievance which is a formal complaint about a work issue.

In practice, these complaints rarely come out of the blue. A typical grievance process tells people to raise issues firstly with their managers, so they only escalate to formal complaints if the employees feel these informal discussions have not solved the “problem” for them.

Sometimes the manager and employee involved will have had many discussions over time and the situation has reached a deadlock, with neither side changing their views.

Let’s look at grievances from the manager’s perspective first. Then we’ll consider the employee’s point of view in a second blog.

The manager, Hayley, works closely with the employee, who we’ll call Dave. She thinks Dave is a good worker overall but he can be difficult at times. He’s argued a few times when she criticises the way he works and complains that she is not listening to his ideas.

Hayley has worked in this area for much longer and is confident she knows the best way to complete the tasks involved. Frankly, she has given up listening (although she tries not to let it show) and just wants to tell him to get on with the work.


One morning she discovers that Dave has raised a grievance about her, saying she is picking on him, nit-picking about mistakes he makes, treating him differently to other employees and never listening to ideas he has to make improvements.

It’s a shock and she’s nervous because the grievance process means another manager will chair a hearing, investigate the issues and might criticise the way she has managed Dave.

Hayley likes to think she is a good people manager and treats people fairly. She starts to think about the interactions she has had with Dave and questions herself and her management style. She has never been involved in a grievance before and has no idea how long it will go on, which means she is finding working with Dave difficult. She’s now worried that anything she says to him will make the situation worse. She also finds it embarrassing because although it’s supposed to be confidential, she thinks Dave has told other people about the grievance.

The grievance process involves another manager inviting the people involved to formal meetings, exploring the issues with both sides to clarify the points raised in the grievance and then making a decision, which can be dismissing the grievance or agreeing with it. Whatever the decision, the manager hearing the grievance might also choose to set out any advice he or she thinks could be helpful, so that the people involved can move on. (For smaller firms: if you do not have another manager who can chair this process, think about bringing somebody in to do it, eg a manager at another company or a consultant.)

Hayley gets a letter inviting her to a meeting with the other manager, who has already had a similar meeting with Dave. He guides her through the points raised in the grievance and she sets out her points of view, with an HR person taking notes.

Hayley is relieved that the meeting takes place within a week of the grievance being raised and that a decision will be made quickly, although she is also advised that Dave can appeal if he is unhappy with the decision – which means repeating the process with a new manager considering the issues.

As for the outcome, we’ll leave that to your imagination. But win or lose, Hayley will still be working with Dave and will have considered more carefully how to speak to him and that even difficult people might be right (or at least feel wronged) sometimes.

Part 2 is from the employee’s point of view and you can see it here.

You can also see suggestions for options to change a difficult working relationship here.