Following a reasonable grievance procedure in your small business

Aug 13, 2018 | Disputes

As an employer, you are obliged to have a grievance procedure of some sort in place so that employees know what they should do if they are unhappy about an aspect of their working life that they are unable to resolve informally.

If one of your employees raises a grievance you are expected to follow a reasonable procedure, and there are some basic principles that you need to follow. But in a small business, there are a number of potential difficulties with what would be perhaps a normal procedure in a bigger organisation. So what are these, and what should you do about them?

A grievance with a line manager

In most organisations, employees are usually advised to raise grievances in the first instance with their line manager, and if the grievance is about their line manager, to raise it with either the manager above them, or perhaps with HR. But in a small business you are unlikely to have dedicated HR, and, particularly in a micro business, may even only have one manager – the business owner.

Obviously this situation is not ideal, but ultimately you are not expected to magic up another manager where none exists. The key is “reasonable”. It would not be considered reasonable in a bigger business to force employees to raise grievances about their line manager with that manager, and the organisation would be expected to provide an alternative option.

In most small businesses there is more than one manager, so your grievance procedure could provide for raising a grievance with another manager if the concern is with the employee’s direct line manager.

But in a tiny business, where that is simply not possible and everyone reports directly to the business owner, it would not be held against you. If you have an external HR consultant, you could consider asking them to handle a grievance, and that can be helpful especially if temperatures are running high, although of course they can only make recommendations about outcomes and the decision is ultimately the business owners.

Employees being accompanied

Allowing employees to be accompanied by either a trade union official or a colleague at a formal grievance hearing is an important part of a fair grievance procedure, and this definitely applies to even the smallest business. But another key characteristic of small businesses is that by definition, the employee may only have very few colleagues, and are also less likely to be members of a trade union. It may be that they are raising a grievance against a colleague, or don’t feel any of their colleagues will be supportive, or feel they are all too involved in the situation. Or it may be that none of the limited number of available colleagues are prepared to accompany the employee.

So what should you do? It’s important to remember that you are not obliged to allow an external third party to attend. Although a small business is still expected to follow a reasonable procedure, that would not mean a more generous policy that would be found at a bigger business, so just as a bigger business wouldn’t have to allow someone’s friend or family member to a grievance hearing you wouldn’t have to either.

Having said that, depending on the nature of the grievance and the past history and approach of the employee, you may want to think about allowing them to bring a friend or family member for support if there are no alternatives available.

Being at work during the process

In most instances, an employee would remain at work during the grievance procedure. However if the grievance is against a colleague or line manager, and particularly if it involves bullying or harassment, or may trigger a bad reaction in the subject of the grievance, continuing to come to work as normal can be enormously difficult. These issues are usually magnified in a very small businesses due to the close nature of relationships, and logistical issues such as all working in a very small space together.

In a larger organisation it may be possible to move either the employee raising the grievance or the subject of the grievance to another department or another desk or office temporarily. But in a small business you may not have that option. Although you could insist that everyone comes to work as normal, for the sake of maintaining a reasonably productive and harmonious working environment, you may want to allow the employee raising the grievance to stay at home on full pay pending the hearing, again depending on the nature of the grievance itself.

What about appeals?

A key principle of a fair and reasonable grievance procedure is that the employee has the opportunity to appeal the decision if they are not happy with the outcome. But as above, in a tiny business, or where the grievance is about the most senior person already, there may be no new or alternative manager to hear the appeal. So what should you do?

Well, again you are not expected to magic up someone else to hear the appeal, but you are still expected to follow a reasonable procedure. This means it is important to still give the opportunity for the employee to appeal, and also to think ahead to a possible appeal when you first receive a grievance and decide who will hear it and who will be involved.

If there is literally only one manager – the business owner, you may feel it is pointless to have an appeal and would simply be a repeat of the original grievance hearing, but you should still give the employee the opportunity if they wish. It’s always possible there are points they want to explore further. Again you could consider involving an external HR consultant at this stage, as they could hear the appeal for you and provide a little bit more of an independent view, and a fresh pair of eyes to the issue.


If you currently have a grievance in your business and would like some advice, do get in touch.