THE PROBLEM
We are a large public-sector organisation. We have several well-established policies and procedures covering a range of employment issues, which have been the subject of extensive internal consultation with managers and trade unions.
 
Man and woman boxingWe are keen to ensure that our grievance procedure has credibility within the organisation. It is important that staff feel suitably empowered to raise any concerns they may have in relation to bullying, harassment or discrimination complaints. In particular, the organisation believes it is important for staff to feel confident that any issues raised will be taken seriously and addressed quickly.
 
But we are concerned about staff going off sick, which hampers our ability to address these issues expeditiously. 
 
Specifically, if a member of staff raises a grievance in relation to an allegation of bullying, harassment and/or discrimination, their complaint will be investigated. As part of this, the employee and manager responsible will need to discuss the situation so that the issues in question can be identified clearly and any incidents explored.
 
However, it is not uncommon in these circumstances for the employee to go off sick with a stress-related illness, which the employee believes is caused by the circumstances that prompted their grievance.
 
Sometimes the problem can be exacerbated when the employee indicates that they no longer feel able to have any contact with the organisation for the foreseeable future. It can then become difficult to resolve the grievance.
 
At the moment, managers often feel unsure about how to respond to the grievance in a way which demonstrates that action is being taken, and the organisation is willing to tackle issues head-on, while remaining sensitive to the needs of the individual.  How do we do this?
 
THE SOLUTION
 

John Crawley

Director of products and services at mediation and dispute resolution consultancy Conflict Management Plus Ltd

 

He says: Handling allegations of issues such as bullying is a difficult skill. One approach doesn't fit all. You need a range of approaches in which managers are, ideally, the first line of contact with the support of their managers, HR and occupational health. Increasingly, organisations are also training colleague support networks of specialist facilitators, mediators, investigators and adjudicators. They support managers and staff by mentoring and co-working. They could even take over the case as an independent third party.

 

Many organisations move into investigation mode too early. Tackling issues head-on is better than doing nothing, but it can be heavy handed. The key is to listen, show understanding, and aim to be fair.

 

Early intervention helps people avoid getting seriously stressed. The use of mediation can keep people striving to resolve the issue, rather than sitting at home becoming  isolated. Some cases will invariably lead to stress-related absence but this can be prevented if minimum standards are set for anyone who might be approached with this type of grievance. All possible points of contact should be familiar with the RARE model, ie, to Receive, Assess and Respond to grievances effectively, and afterwards Evaluate how the process went.

 

Receive the grievance – meet privately, listen actively, show empathy, and ask the person what they want to achieve. Check their willingness to take an informal or formal approach. Agree a summary of issues raised and clarify what will happen next.

 

Assess the situation – ask questions, explain the options and be objective.

 

Respond – get back to the complainant quickly. If they need you to work on their behalf, think about how to approach the person who faces the allegation. Or, if the complainant feels able to speak to the person with whom they have a problem, help them think about what they need to say and how to say it.  If necessary, get them together, create ground rules and encourage exchange followed by suggestions for ways forward.

 

Evaluate – get feedback on how your approach worked and make sure that you learn from the process.

 
 

Ian Apperley

Head of HR , Greater London Authority

 

He says: Your policies and procedures will provide a sound base for dealing with these incidents. You have involved managers and the trade unions in their development and this will strengthen their acceptance.

 

However, some individuals feel anxious about using the grievance procedure to address their own complaints. People may feel anxious for several reasons. They may be affected by the original incident, they may be concerned about facing their alleged aggressor while their complaints are being investigated, and they may worry about being victimised following the investigation. 

 

The solution is for people to see the work environment as a place where problems are resolved, not created. This environment is created by managers fulfilling their pastoral roles and by individuals being involved in finding solutions to their concerns.

 

There are four things you can do to help achieve this. First, you could introduce a dignity at work policy. The policy would confirm your organisation's zero tolerance approach to bullying, and would set out arrangements for supporting people making complaints of bullying. Managers, HR, and trade unions all have roles to play in providing this support. The policy would set out guidelines for dealing with alleged aggressors while complaints are investigated, and it would set out the disciplinary sanctions for victimisation.

 

Second, you could introduce a mediation service. Mediation helps the people involved in disputes to identify and address the issues causing conflict. It then helps them to rebuild their relationship. Sessions can be held in neutral locations, and this can help individuals to participate despite being off sick. An organisation of your size could establish an in-house service and train your own staff to be mediators.

 

Third, you could refer individuals to an occupational health service. An early referral can help the individual to clarify the root cause of their anxiety. You will then be able to introduce additional support or safeguards to achieve an early return to work.

 

Lastly, and where appropriate, you could provide the individual with access to a counselling service. Experience shows that people can gain significant benefits after only a small number of sessions.

 
 
Terry Lippiatt
Chief conciliator at Acas
 
He says: You are already doing a lot of things better than many organisations. You have policies and procedures in place that you have developed with managers and trade unions and that is a really good start. As you’ve discovered, however, the hard bit is getting those policies to work in practice.
 
Bullying, harassment and discrimination are difficult areas where emotions often cloud logical thinking. Formal procedures can help by providing a way to resolve a problem but they are not always easy to adhere to when emotions are raised. The need to follow a formal grievance can increase tensions and make matters worse.
 
Sometimes what appears to be bullying is one person misunderstanding another’s behaviour. This can often be resolved informally, perhaps through an apology.
 
Frequently, complaints are against a manager who would normally be the person an individual would go to in the first instance. Clearly this will be difficult, especially in serious cases; there needs to be someone else in the organisation that people can go to where they know they will get a fair hearing. That person, like everyone who handles grievances, should be properly trained.
 
Staff may be apprehensive before a grievance meeting so managers should emphasise the individual’s right to have a colleague or trade union official present.
 
Mediation can also help resolve grievances while maintaining working relationships. Mediation is often most effective when used early, before attitudes become entrenched. But mediation can help at any stage, including where relations between two parties have broken down.
 
The most important aspect of dealing with issues such as bullying, harassment and discrimination is preventing them arising in the first place. If you are finding that complaints are increasing you need to find out why. Is your organisation's management style too confrontational? Are you sure that you should always tackle issues head on or should you try to match your approach more to the particular circumstances? Do you show that you value diversity? Do senior managers set a good example?
 
Not all problems can be eliminated, but if you attend to the wider issues as well as the symptoms, then you are likely to see more overall improvement.
 
 
Further info
If you have any queries or problems you would like to receive expert opinion on, please send them to
troubleshooter@peoplemanagement.co.uk placing "Troubleshooter" in the subject line.