Realistic outcomes for a grievance in a small business

Aug 20, 2018 | Disputes

Following a reasonable and fair grievance procedure is vital to any employer, including small businesses, but that is generally not too difficult once you identify the key aspects of a procedure and go through the process.

What can sometimes be more challenging is identifying a reasonable outcome. You should always ask the employee raising a grievance what outcome they are looking for – what action would they like you to take, but frequently some of the potential actions available to a bigger employer looking to address concerns raised as part of a formal grievance are simply not available to a small organisation.

So if this is the case, what should you do? Here are some of the typical issues/themes raised in grievances, and some possible outcomes you may consider.

Bullying or harassment

If the grievance is about bullying and harassment, or other relationship difficulties, in a larger business one option for resolving it might be to move someone on a permanent basis to a new role, another department, another line manager or another office. Of course in a small business it’s likely that this just wouldn’t be possible.

Instead, you should make efforts to improve relationships between the employees in question, perhaps with some kind of mediation, and could also consider training and obviously making clear what behaviour is expected in future. You may also need to consider a disciplinary process against the subject of the grievance.

But of course sometimes employees raising a grievance do simply refuse to work with someone going forward, even if the person is disciplined and training or mediation is provided. In those circumstances, as long as you’ve made as much effort as you reasonably can to improve things, ultimately the employee may well need to make a decision about whether to stay.

Your legal risk here might be constructive dismissal claim, and it is possible that if an employee has suffered at the hands of a colleague and the employer didn’t take reasonable steps to protect them or to deal with the treatment, there might be a vulnerability there. For example, if the actions of the subject of the grievance were sufficiently serious to be considered gross misconduct (therefore justifying summary dismissal), or alternatively were the last in a line of similar incidents and the employee was already on a final warning, but you haven’t taken that step and dismissed the employee, it may be that the person raising the grievance has a justifiable complaint that you didn’t do all you could have done.

But as long as you take whatever reasonable action is available to you to either improve the relationship between the two, to separate them if this is possible, and to take appropriate sanctions against the perpetrator, you have done all you can, and should not therefore be vulnerable to a legal claim.

Excessive workload

Resources are often tightly stretched in a small business, with not a lot of- give’. That’s not necessarily a problem, but some business owners get drawn into relying too heavily on goodwill and it can backfire. The issue of excessive workload frequently comes up in terms of covering absence. In a small business managers often simply rely on other staff to cover in the event of employees going on holiday or off sick.

If you receive a grievance relating to excessive workload, you may be tempted to rely on just being able to say resources are stretched and you cannot (for example) employ additional staff, or get temps in to cover holiday, or recruit additional help when a staff member is off long-term sick.

But the risk of doing that is you’ll end up with perhaps two employees off sick, or with a recruitment problem due to staff quitting as they are feeling unsupported. Take time to work with your team member to identify what is realistic in terms of a workload and seek their input on how the rest could be covered, or whether anything could be ditched altogether, temporarily or permanently. If you will be expecting staff to cover holidays, sickness or other absences, make sure they know what support is available, and how they should raise concerns if they don’t have time to do everything and are struggling to understand what to prioritise.

And as a responsible employer, you may need to bite the bullet and invest in temporary help if there is a long-term absence or significant workload problem.

Management decisions

This theme can cover a wide variety of issues from pay decisions, promotion/recruitment decisions, or a general sense of something or other being unfair. Very often here the fundamental problem is a lack of transparency around decision-making, leaving employees to perceive unfairness or lack of consideration.

In terms of a realistic outcome, obviously consider the specific issue the employee has raised, with an open mind. But even if the decision being complained about can’t be changed or should not be changed, a longer term reasonable outcome would be to ensure better communication of decisions and more clarity around decisions in future.

That doesn’t mean necessarily implementing a lot of new policies or having policies which are overly prescriptive – agility is important to many small enterprises. But agreeing suitable channels for regular communication would be sensible, as well as considering producing some criteria/guiding principles indicating how you make certain key decisions.

In a small business employees often wait longer before raising a grievance due to the impact they know it will have in a small team, and often due to a lack of confidence that it will make a difference anyway. The result of this is that frequently, a grievance in a small business is relating to an issue which is pretty serious, or has gone unaddressed for a long time, or is realistically unresolvable. Often we see employees who have raised a grievance in their small business leave employment not too long afterwards.

Of course your aim should be to avoid this where possible, and overall the important thing with a grievance is to consider it carefully, take it seriously, and where possible, take action to address the concern. At the same time remember that if an employee is asking for an outcome which is not possible due to the size of your business or resources available, it’s ok to say no, as long as you can demonstrate reasonable effort to resolve the problem as far as you are able.


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