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When a quiet word is better than formal channels for problems at work

When problems arise at work - and they invariably do - it's important to get to grips with them quickly.

What many managers sometimes find difficult, though, is judging when it's appropriate to have a quiet word informally or go straight to formal procedures.

Formal or informal?

Having a quiet word between colleagues can be fast and effective, and is more likely to keep the employment relationship on track while a resolution is reached.

If the issue is serious, on the other hand, then sometimes only formal channels will do. But the drawback is that formal procedures may force the parties into entrenched positions that make it more difficult to find common ground, and which may do lasting damage to working relationships.

And using formal procedures for a small problem could be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The view from the front line

What do the experts on the front line think? When formal procedures are in place, the mindset of both sides can change, Shaun, Acas Individual Conciliator said in the Acas Raising an issue at work video.

The focus may shift from looking for a solution to compiling evidence and making a case. Where the emphasis informally is likely to be more about resolving a problem, it can be something far more adversarial in a formal situation.

It's the right of both sides to take the formal route if they think it's necessary.

But as Glendene, Acas Helpline adviser, pointed out on the Raising an issue at work video, 'At Acas we do suggest that before doing that, you take an informal approach, that you do speak to your [colleague] because in some instances that may be all you need to do to get an outcome.'

How to approach problems informally

So what should managers do when they become aware of a problem? The first thing would be to arrange a meeting with the individual concerned to talk things through and see if there's a straightforward solution.

Managers should keep employees reassured, as bringing problems up, even informally, can be a source of anxiety and stress. A supportive and trusting working atmosphere will help your staff talk about issues openly and make it easier to find ways through them.

A manager who can listen well will take on board the employee's opinion on how matters could be put straight. Unfortunately, such solutions aren't always practicable, because of company rules or the need for fairness.

At such times, it may be appropriate to talk to an independent, impartial person, a mediator, who may be able to find an answer acceptable to all. Mediation is a voluntary and confidential form of alternative dispute resolution and can be highly effective, particularly for repairing working relationships.

Acas publications and services

Acas has published Discipline and grievances at work: The Acas guide, giving you good practice advice for dealing with problems in the workplace. Raising an issue at work has more detailed information on how to handle issues informally and features the Acas video of the same name.

Managing a complaint at work: A step-by-step guide is one of a suite of eight step-by-step guides aimed at keeping you on the right side of the law in key areas of employment relations.

Acas experts can visit you and work with you to build effective working relationships and develop robust discipline and grievance procedures. See Disputes and mediation: how Acas can help for more information.

Practical training is also available on Dispute resolution, Mediation, Investigations, Discipline and grievance, Skills for supervisors, Handling difficult conversations and, for newer employers, Employing People - A Practical Introduction.

For free, impartial advice and guidance visit Acas Helpline Online.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.


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We recommend that you explore further information and advice available on this website, particularly within our Advice A-Z guidance pages. If you have questions about workplace rights and rules visit Helpline Online.
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