HR Management & Compliance

What is a Grievance?

In the context of employee-employer relations, the term “grievance” usually relates to an employee’s allegation of a violation of workplace policy or contract terms.

For a unionized workplace, this usually comes up in the context of an employee complaint that the terms of the collective bargaining agreement are not being met. In the context of a nonunionized workplace, a grievance could mean any complaint about noncompliance with work policies or related regulations.

In short, a grievance is a formal employee complaint. Usually this comes about when an employee feels he or she has been negatively affected by the employer not holding up the terms (or misapplying the terms) of the employment agreement. A grievance could come from an individual or a group, and it could relate to a specific contract term or it could be related to violations of the collective bargaining agreement or other employer policies.

What is a Grievance Procedure?

When a grievance is brought to the attention of an employer, usually the employer has a formal means of addressing the employee’s concern and trying to reach a resolution. This formal means is usually referred to as the grievance procedure.

The collective bargaining agreement in place for unionized workplaces usually has a designation of how grievances will be handled, such as the use of arbitration or mediation. Some nonunion workplaces also have formal procedures to handle employee complaints and grievances.

The grievance procedure in place may be unique to the organization, but often there will be a series of steps that are followed to try to get resolution. For example, many grievance procedures begin by outlining where the employee’s grievance must be initiated, such as with the employee’s direct supervisor, who then must work with the union rep to determine whether the grievance is valid (i.e., they determine whether the collective bargaining agreement terms are being violated or misapplied). This is, of course, just an example, but it is often how grievance procedures begin; it could differ in your workplace.

In our example, after the supervisor and the union rep meet and agree that the grievance is valid, they can take steps to resolve it. If the employee remains unhappy after this, it may have to be escalated. Again, collective bargaining agreements usually have specific steps laid out that detail the exact procedure to be followed when a grievance is filed—and even nonunion workplaces often have formal systems to handle and resolve employee complaints. Be sure to check your organization’s collective bargaining agreement, employee handbook, and other policies to see what your organization has laid out.

Overall, having a formal grievance filing and resolution procedure can be beneficial for both parties. It gives employees a way to air complaints and seek appropriate resolutions without resorting to lawsuits. It gives employers the opportunity to resolve problems before those problems take the form of litigation. (Of course, litigation is not always avoided in serious cases that are not adequately resolved!)

What has been your experience with formal employee grievance procedures? Does your organization have a formal procedure in place? What are the steps? Have you found it helps to resolve problems before they escalate?

*This article does not constitute legal advice. Always consult legal counsel with specific questions.


About Bridget Miller:

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.

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