Vicky Kitney, lead business partner at Peninsula Business Services, explores how to effectively resolve a workplace grievance.

Staff grievances can have a significant impact on any workplace, causing stress, anxiety and worry for parties on both sides of the dispute. Healthcare organisations and practices are no exception, so it's vital to have an approach that aims to deal with them in a timely and efficient way, to avoid things escalating and making them worse for all concerned.

Grievances in the workplace

Difficulties that are not managed properly can have a detrimental impact on staff performance, with subsequent absenteeism and financial cost to the organisation. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) estimates that almost 10 million people a year experience workplace conflict, costing UK businesses £28.5 billion per year, with grievances alone costing £360 million per year.

In 2021/22, some 30% of employers reported an increase in grievances. The most common reasons were:

  • bullying or harassment(67%)
  • relationships with managers (54%)
  • relationships with colleagues (49%).

Grievances in healthcare

Grievances can happen for all sorts of personal or professional reasons, but the pressures felt by those working in healthcare in the UK are intense. According to the GMC's latest 'State of medical education and practice report, around two-fifths of doctors (43%) were dissatisfied with their day-to-day work in 2022, nearly double the proportion in 2021 (22%). This can inevitably lead to stress and burnout, and to staff being more prone to raise issues.

At the same time, recruitment and retention of practice staff is more difficult than ever - again, the GMC's report states that, "from 2021 to 2022, the proportion of doctors who said they were likely to make a career change in the next year grew significantly - from 58% of doctors to more than three-quarters (77%)." It's possible that some employees feel emboldened by these recruitment difficulties, giving them the confidence to raise an issue knowing that if it doesn't work out in their favour, they will move on.

A grievance policy is key

So what can employers do to deal with staff grievances effectively, and before they get out of control?

Firstly, it's vital to have the necessary processes in place, and a grievance policy is essential. This acts as a primary point of reference for anyone in the team who has a complaint or concern, and directs them on what they need to do - and what they can expect to happen - once they have initiated their grievance.

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This policy should, as a minimum, be based on the ACAS code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures. This sets out the basic processes and principles that all organisations should follow when handling employee concerns.

In the first instance, a grievance policy should encourage the situation to be dealt with, and hopefully resolved, in an informal manner. This is the best approach for minor grievances, as instigating a formal procedure is a form of escalation that might unnecessarily inflate the grievance.

This process involves the relevant line manager (or if the complaint is about them, another manager or HR representative) talking to the individual with the concern, establishing if they would agree to the matter being dealt with informally, finding out what they want to achieve, and doing some preliminary investigations into the issue. Hopefully, the manager will be able to respond informally satisfactorily to the aggrieved employee, and the matter can be dealt with quickly and efficiently.

However, not all issues can be dealt with informally. Some are too significant, as with bullying or harassment (for which many organisations have a separate and specific policy), where a senior employee is involved, or if the employee has become particularly upset by the issue. If that is the case, a formal procedure is needed, and it's best for this to be arranged without delay.

Case law has shown us that the longer a grievance is delayed, the more upset by it an employee can become. If the organisation delays dealing with a matter, and the original reason for the grievance continues, the impact can be so great on the employee that they resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal (if they have over two years' service) or potentially bring some other claim, such as discrimination.

...a grievance policy is essential. This acts as a primary point of reference for anyone in the team who has a complaint or concern...

Managerial skills play an important role

Whether the process is formal or informal, a key factor for it to work properly is the ability of the manager in charge of dealing with the issue.

There is a great deal of skill involved in resolving a grievance appropriately and professionally. This could require giving formal training to managers before dealing with any grievances, providing them with a mentor in the form of a more experienced manager, or allocating a HR practitioner to support them through the process. Once again, a detailed policy will be invaluable by giving the manager a clear guide of the steps to follow to ensure consistency across the organisation.

In conclusion, it's important for all parties to keep communication channels open when disagreements emerge so issues can be resolved proportionately and professionally.

Peninsula offers a wide range of practice management help and advice to MDU members. Find out more.

This page was correct at publication on 30/10/2023. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.