Studies show that the leader-member exchange (the employee and manager relationship) affects employees’ behaviour. Support, visibility and responsiveness are key in employee leadership. This relationship is critical to getting the best from employees and, when it breaks down, the damage is great.
Prevention is better than cure and HR must support managers to deal with issues informally, but often HR professionals do not hear of problems until conflict is established and positions set. If we can offer mediation, this is a good approach. But sometimes the manager is the source of the issue, which makes situations more complex.
Research suggests that loyal employees might start with informal routes to discuss issues and may be unwilling to express unease and unlikely to file a grievance. They may even suffer in silence about harassment and bullying. This is not what the HR professional wants because, if harassment and bullying are not resolved, the case becomes more complex.
The employee may feel less trust that the organisation will resolve the issue. It begins to affect an employee’s motivation and engagement with work, their perception of organisational justice and their own effectiveness and efficiency. Burying any conflict issues is not healthy for everyone.
A grievance is a formal approach to employee voice, not a condemnation of the business. If we deal with this effectively, we can retain all parties. If we can ensure that all parties are viewed as loyal, then we start from a good place.
Learning from case law
In Newcombe v Machynlleth Town Council in 2020, the claimant originally raised a grievance about what they perceived as an unfair change in hours. Here, communication was critical. Her manager, the town clerk, was to investigate this grievance but didn’t, deciding on a verbal warning for the acting clerk. The claimant appealed, but when the trade union sought an update on this appeal, the town clerk stated the claim was ‘vexatious’.
Managers need to understand how following transparent procedures supports a view of procedural justice and prevents employees having claim upon claim, losing the trust of their managers and organisations. They need to use an open mind in investigations. The failure of managers in this case to conduct fair impartial investigations was a big factor in the employer being found to have breached the law.
The claimant became unwell. An impact on health damages the respondent’s reputation. At the occupational health referral, the claimant explained that she felt bullied. Again, the employer failed to investigate.
The claimant then received notification from her GP of a letter requesting information without permission, further diminishing her trust in the organisation. She made a further grievance. Again, it was ignored. The council requested more information about her sickness – she felt this was the last straw and resigned, claiming constructive dismissal. She won a small financial remedy, but the outcome will help other employers to reflect on the case. There are lessons about the need for open communication, transparent policies, trust, training and improved HR involvement in handling conflict successfully. Conflict cannot be avoided but it can be resolved in the interests of all if handled transparently and fairly.
Key points for employers
First, employers need to establish and encourage employee voice. If this is effective, then we are more likely to receive effective responses from employees. This supports the positive influence of employees and develops the employer-employee relationship.
Second, leaders should be supported in developing their connection with their staff, as this relationship is key to employee voice and enables HR to support managers to prevent issues being embedded. A culture where grievance is not penalised will enable employees to communicate to HR any formal issues with managers.
Finally, when reviewing complex employee cases, HR needs to be clear on what has been said and by whom. An open approach should be given to investigation and additional claims such as harassment need to be investigated. Encouraging open and consistent support to managers helps prevent longer-term issues, but HR needs to ensure the issues that management have told them about are accurate.
Jude Ritchie is a lecturer at the University of East London and Liz Aylott is author of Employment Law and Employee Relations