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Help for small firms

Managing a complaint at work: A step-by-step guide

Managing a complaint at work - Frequently-asked questions

How do I investigate the complaint?

Ideally, the person conducting the investigation should have no connection with the complaint, so they can find out the facts in a fair and reasonable manner.
But finding a person who is unconnected is not always possible in a small business. However, whoever carries out the investigation must do so with an open mind.

That entails talking to all the parties involved and producing written evidence, and being willing to look for evidence supporting the employee and against them.
People involved should be asked not to discuss the complaint - and not to rally support for one side or the other.

And remember to keep that open mind, as what you uncover may not be what you expected. For example, someone's fall-out with a colleague could also uncover allegations of bullying.

Also, at this stage the parties do not have a right to be accompanied, but be careful that your questioning to find out the facts does not turn into a kind of grievance meeting where judgements are starting to be made and where they could have a right to be accompanied.

What should I keep in writing?

All the basics - the complaint, the employee's case, the other party's response, the outcomes of past similar grievances raised, a record of the grievance meeting, if an appeal was made, minutes of the appeal and how it was decided, the reasons for actions taken and developments following the appeal.

Give a copy of grievance and appeal meeting records to the employee, but don't include information that would identify a witness who wants to stay anonymous or confidential information from past grievances including other employees.

Remember, these records are confidential and should be kept in a safe place.

What are some of the other matters which may cause grievances?

Earlier in this tool, we have already mentioned health and safety, and allegations of bullying, harassment or discrimination. But it could also be about their terms and conditions of employment, a rift with a colleague or manager or their working conditions.

Can an employee raise a grievance about a work matter not entirely within my control, say a customer who they have to deal with or to do with a client where they have to work at their business?

Yes, such complaints should be handled the same as grievances completely within your organisation, with the manager investigating as far as possible and taking the necessary action.

You should make it clear to any third party that grievances are taken seriously and that action will be taken to protect your employees.

Who can accompany an employee at a grievance meeting?

Usually a fellow worker without a conflict of interest, a trade union representative qualified to accompany a worker or an official employed by a union who can get to the meeting.

An employee can ask an official from any trade union to accompany them, regardless of whether they are in that union or it is recognised in that workplace.

However, some employees may have rights in their contract to be accompanied by a partner, spouse or legal representative.

Also, a colleague who has agreed to accompany the employee has a right to take a reasonable amount of paid time off to prepare for the meeting and attend it.

The employee should tell the employer who they have chosen as a companion.

For more on the companion, start on page 47 of Discipline and grievances at work: The Acas guide.

Can the employee suggest an alternative date and time for the grievance meeting?

Yes, so long as it is reasonable and not more than five working days after the original date.

Also, the employee should be given sufficient time to prepare for the meeting.

What can a companion do at a grievance meeting?

They can tell the employee's side of the story, talk privately with the employee during the meeting, or respond to anything said at the meeting, including asking witnesses questions.

While the companion can answer questions for the employee, you have a right to insist the employee answers questions.

And a companion can only do what the employee says they can do. They cannot get in the way of you presenting your case.

Both sides should tell one another, and the person who will be chairing the meeting, who they will be calling as witnesses.

Does an employee have to have a companion at a grievance meeting?

Yes, if they want one, and the person they choose is a reasonable request and fits within the criteria outlined earlier in this tool.

An employee whose employer fails to comply with a reasonable request for them to be accompanied can claim against the employer at an employment tribunal.

An employee can also claim at a tribunal if the employer fails to re-arrange a grievance meeting to a reasonable date so the companion can attend.

A tribunal may order compensation of up to two weeks' pay.

Employers should be careful not to disadvantage workers for using their right to be accompanied or for being companions, as this could also lead to a claim to a tribunal.

An employer may also need to be flexible if the employee making the complaint is disabled. For example, they may request the presence at the grievance meeting of an expert who can explain the effects of their disability.

Also, the request to be accompanied does not have to be in writing.

Does the employee making the complaint have a right to be accompanied at a grievance meeting into all complaints?

An employee has the right to be accompanied at a grievance meeting if they claim their legal rights or contract terms are being overlooked or flouted.

So, an employee's complaint about their pay rise would not invoke the right to be accompanied, unless a set increase was written into their contract or it was a claim for equal pay.

And, for example, if an employee lodged a complaint that they could not park their car at work, again they would not have a right to be accompanied, unless a company car parking place was written into their contract or they were disabled and needed a car to get to work.

However, it is generally good practice to allow an employee to be accompanied at a grievance meeting, even when their complaint does not concern a legal or contractual right.

Acas often uses the word 'reasonable'. For example, what is a reasonable amount of paid time off for a companion preparing for a grievance meeting? What does 'reasonable' actually mean?

The principle is to look at all the circumstances of the situation and weigh up the factors. If your judgement is based on rational, fair, sensible and unbiased thinking,
an employment tribunal should view your action as reasonable.

A second test is to consider whether an outsider would consider your decision extreme or excessive. If you think they might, then so might a tribunal.

So based on the answer to the question above, how do you judge whether an employee's request to be accompanied by a certain person is reasonable?

What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances of the individual case.
But, for example, it would not normally be reasonable for an employee to insist on being accompanied by a companion whose presence would prejudice the meeting.

Neither would it be reasonable for a worker to ask to be accompanied by a companion from a location far away when someone equally as suitable and willing was available on site.

What if a witness wants to be anonymous?

That is allowed, but you should try to find other evidence that backs up what they said and think about why they're testifying. Have they had personal issues with this employee?

Also, while you should give the employee being investigated a copy of the anonymous witness's statement, remove from the copy the witness's name and any details which would identify them.

Should the employee give the employer a copy of their evidence before the meeting?

Yes. The employer will give the employee the facts from their investigation, including written evidence and witness statements with the letter inviting the employee to the grievance meeting.

It is only fair that the employee should do the same with their evidence, including witness statements and naming which witnesses they will be calling.

Any serious surprises - important new evidence - raised at the grievance meeting may mean it will have to be adjourned. The new evidence may need to be investigated before the meeting can resume at a future date.

What if the employee raising the grievance is a trade union representative?

The same standards apply to trade union reps, but you may want to start discussing the complaint early on with a trade union official, if the employee agrees to it. This may help ensure the matter does not become seen unnecessarily as a union versus company issue.

Download a PDF version of pdf  Help for small firms - managing a complaint at work [65kb] that you can print out.

How useful is this tool? Email webteam@acas.org.uk to let us know.

And if you want to find out more, download the Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures and Discipline and grievances at work: The Acas guide.

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