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 Handling grievances in the workplace


 Ideally, grievances in the workplace should be approached with discretion and professionalism in accordance with certain general principles. However there are numerous managers, supervisors and heads of departments who are not equipped to handle these issues in the manner in which they ought to be dealt with.


What is the proper procedure that needs to be followed, when is the presence of an independent chairperson necessary, and what happens if the grievance is not resolved to the satisfaction of the employee?

What to do when the situation arises?

Addressing grievances in the workplace is synonymous with a balancing act – a levelled playing field needs to be maintained. There are those employers who are too soft and make a ruling on a grievance without establishing whether the complaint holds any merit, and then there are those employers who ignore grievances and tend to victimise the employee who lodged the complaint.

Common grievances and confidentiality clauses

Grievances can be defined as gripes or feelings of discontent or dissatisfaction held by employees relating to poor or unfair treatment whether perceived or actual. Among some of the more common grievances are those relating to unfair treatment with regard to pay development, being passed over for promotional opportunities and adverse assessments on performance evaluations and assessments, as well as unacceptable treatment from co-workers involving disrespect, name calling and ostracism.

Grievances usually involve two parties, namely, the aggrieved party and the party against whom the grievance is laid, unless of course the grievance is of a collective nature in which case there would be multiple parties involved sharing a common grievance. Consistent with the principles of protection of information and the non-disclosure of confidential information in the employment context, information shared during a grievance hearing should not be disclosed to parties not in attendance at the hearing nor to those not required to have this kind of information, although there is no prohibition on lending from the principles and the lessons learned from a grievance to send out a communiqué to staff to highlight these principles.

What process should be followed?

According to Andrew Butters, a consultant contracted to The HR Hub, where a grievance is held by an employee, he/she has the right to declare a grievance in terms of a particular procedure usually laid down by the company. “This would require the employee initially attempting to resolve the grievance informally by discussing the nature of the grievance with his/her supervisor or manager. The idea is that any grievance ought to be raised at the earliest opportunity possible,” Butters explains.

However, if the grievance is not able to be resolved by the supervisor, then the grievance is raised more formally by escalating it to a manager one level higher than the level of management to which the grievance was informally raised, possibly even involving a representative of the HR department, where the organisation has its own dedicated HR department. If the grievance remains unresolved, it can be raised to levels as senior as those at Chief Executive and Managing Director levels within the organisation. In the event that the grievance raised by the aggrieved party is not resolved to their satisfaction, they have the right, once all steps laid down in the company grievance procedure have been exhausted, to declare a dispute to a dispute resolution body such as a bargaining council or the Council for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

Independent chairperson

According to Butters, the use of external parties is always a topical debate and consideration at both disciplinary and grievance hearings. “There is no legislation prescribing the conditions under which external parties should be secured to preside over grievance hearings,” he continues. There are some guidelines which may be useful in making any such decision to secure the services of an external chairperson, and these would typically include following the dictates of the grievance procedure of the company in this respect:

  • Where there is a high level of complexity attached to the nature of the grievance extending beyond the experience and skill of managers within the company;
  • Where the grievance is emotionally charged or where there is a high degree of sensitivity attached to the grievance;
  • Where the grievance involves a senior manager/s within the organisation; and
  • Where the inputs and independence of an external third party would be helpful in resolving the grievance.





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