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Workplace Grievance Deep Dive

When employees feel their personal or workplace rights are being violated, they have the option to raise a workplace grievance with their employer. Typically, this involves following a workplace specific procedure which has been set up and outline by the organisation itself, but which is based on labour legislation and best practices. A workplace grievance is regarded as a formal process involving reporting a complaint or concern of an employee, or group of employees, regarding any aspect of their employment, usually regarding working conditions. A grievance may arise over many issues such as treatment of individuals or groups, workplace behaviour, company policies and procedures, or actions taken by employers, managers, colleagues, or the organisation itself. Grievances can arise from countless situations, such as bullying, harassment and employment discrimination, unfair treatment, a breach of the terms and conditions of an employment contract, health and safety aspects, workload issues or disputes regarding working conditions and remuneration.

Organisations need to build a supportive and inclusive workplace where employees feel supported to raise a workplace grievance without fear of comeback or retaliation. Organisations which foster open communication, provide clear workplace guidelines, policies and procedures and maintain confidentiality and impartiality throughout the grievance process, can help their employees to address their concerns thereby promoting a healthy and productive workplace culture.

There are numerous grounds why an employee might be hesitant to raise a grievance in the workplace. Common reasons include fear of retaliation or retribution, lack of confidence in the grievance process, being exposed as a whistle-blower and hostility in the workplace, fearing the impact that a grievance could have on their career within the organisation, fear of being unprotected from retribution outside of the workplace, being passed over for promotions and associated benefits such as access to overtime or workplace opportunities and even constructive dismissal. 

Most often, employees simply prefer to avoid confrontation and conflict in the workplace, choosing to keep their grievances to themselves. While this seems like the easiest and non-conflictual course of action, there are times when other employees are suffering from the same or similar issue, which could, in some instances, be placing that individual in harm’s way (such as bullying and harassment). It is important for employees to bear in mind that their choice to speak up against mistreatment in the workplace, could save someone else from suffering the same fate and potential harm. Which is why it is important for organisations to ensure that their grievance procedure is clear, fairly implemented and communicated throughout the organisation, supporting employees to have access to recourse.

A grievance is issued progressively and escalated accordingly to pursue a resolution. A grievance may first be directed to the employee’s line manager. In cases where the line manager is perceived as part of the concern, employees may address their grievance to the company’s HR department. Employees should not “skip” steps in the process unless there are barriers to the procedural approach, for example, where an organization does not have an in-house HR Department, in which case, employees could approach a senior staff member or director to have their grievance addressed. In worse-case scenarios, employees have access to the CCMA.