How To Respond To A Personal Grievance

Employers generally have no interest in treating their employees unfairly. It just isn’t good for business.

As an employer, you likely know that if your staff are upset, they will be less productive. You also know that dealing with personal grievances consumes management time that could be better spent elsewhere.

If you can avoid personal grievances, then you are doing yourself, your staff, and your business plenty of favours.

Dealing with your employees in good faith and following fair processes where necessary goes a long way to help reduce the likelihood that personal grievances will crop up.

Yet despite your best intentions you may still be confronted with staff members raising personal grievances. In those cases, how should you respond in a way that is best for your business?

HOW NOT TO RESPOND

Ways to respond to personal grievances that are not good for your business can include:

  • reacting badly. Your first reaction may be to get defensive, if not a little angry. You may feel like you have bent over backwards to provide your employee with a job and to support them in their role, and all they can do in return is complain about you. Whether or not your feelings are justified, reacting this way is probably going to escalate matters. It may cause you both to become polarised in your positions, which will make the issue take a lot longer to resolve than it might have otherwise.

  • ignoring it. If you hate conflict or feel like you have more important matters to attend to, you may be tempted to pretend the grievance doesn’t exist. However, burying your head in the sand will not help your business either. If the person raising the personal grievance is still your employee, the issue will still affect their productivity. That can have a ripple effect through the business, as others they interact with hear about the issue or are hampered by that employee’s sour attitude to their work. You also risk failing in your own duty to act in good faith.

Both of the above responses fail to see that there is an opportunity to improve your business by addressing the root causes of productivity loss, and to learn from any mistakes you might have made.

Your perspective on the issue might be helped by thinking more broadly about what a personal grievance really is.

WHAT A PERSONAL GRIEVANCE REALLY IS

A personal grievance is simply a complaint that your employee wants to bring to your attention, in which they allege they are being treated unfairly.

It is not:

  • a legal proceeding in the Employment Relations Authority or the Employment Court (though it may lead to such a proceeding if the issue is not resolved);
  • a personal attack on you (at least, not normally);
  • an attempt by the employee to exploit you by taking you to the cleaners (again, at least, not normally); or
  • a statement of fact, necessarily (the employee might be wrong).

Rather, it is an opportunity for you to hear your employee’s concerns and attempt to deal with them appropriately before they have an undue impact on your business. That is why employees only have 90 days in which they must bring their personal grievance to your attention – so you can resolve the issues as quickly as possible.

Nevertheless, you may wonder why, if your employees feel they are being treated unfairly, they can’t just raise their concerns with you informally? Why is a personal grievance necessary?

The reality is a personal grievance is the concern your employee brings to your attention. The term “personal grievance” is merely the way those types of concerns are described in the Employment Relations Act 2000. They can be raised formally or informally. The employee doesn’t even need to use the term personal grievance in order to raise one. That means your employee could raise a personal grievance with you informally, and you may not realise it.

Viewed in this way, the term is not so important. Just know that if the employee says they have a personal grievance, they are letting you know that they think they have been treated unfairly and want you to do something about it.

HOW BEST TO RESPOND

Once you know that a personal grievance represents an employee’s subjective sense that they have been treated unfairly, you can respond in a constructive way, bearing in mind what is best for your business.

In most cases, the best outcome for the business will be to resolve the grievance as soon as possible so that:

  • the impact on staff productivity is minimised;
  • the consumption of management time dealing with the issue is reduced; and
  • financial costs of litigation are avoided.

You cannot know how a grievance should be resolved unless you clearly understand why the employee considers they have been treated unfairly.

They may have raised a personal grievance, but you may need further information to understand where they are coming from.

Don’t be afraid to meet with the employee to hear them further. Doing this as early as possible, and suspending your judgment until you have done so, will give you the best opportunity to resolve the situation as soon as possible.

Whether you meet with the employee one-on-one, or in the context of a free and confidential mediation provided by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, do so with a view to hearing whether there is any merit to their concerns. Then decide on what approach to take to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

Resolving the grievance can take several forms:

  • in some cases, the employee will be mistaken. They have not been treated unfairly and need to be helped to understand why. To do that, you will need to provide them with a clear explanation of how you see the issue and back it up with available evidence;
  • in other situations, the employee may be right. You may have to admit you made a mistake or take steps to repair the situation; or
  • on yet other occasions, you and the employee may not be able to agree how to resolve the issue. You will either need a decision of the Authority or the Court to determine whether the employee has in fact been treated unfairly, or you may have to seek to settle the grievance by making a payment to the employee that is less than what it would cost you to defend the claim in the Authority or the Court.

CONCLUSION

If your employee raises a personal grievance, don’t escalate the issue by reacting defensively or ignoring it.

Instead, try to understand the employee’s concerns as best as you can. Meet with them one-on-one or in the context of a mediation. Consider whether there is any substance to their concerns before deciding how to deal with them – even if that means admitting your mistakes and learning from them.

After all, resolving personal grievances is good for business.