How to avoid historic grievance claims (they are more common than you might think)

An apple with a sad face drawn on representing how to avoid historic grievance claimsWelcome to this week’s HR Blast for employers. Can employees raise grievances about stuff that happened years ago? Is there any protection for employers with respect to historical claims? Can you side step a disgruntled or hostile employee wanting to cause chaos and mayhem by bringing up every insult and perceived injury they say they have had to put up with in the previous 25 years?

Is 500 years too long?

It was recently reported in the press that Mexico’s president has sent a letter to Spain asking for an apology for having invaded the territory 500 years ago! Spain, not surprisingly, has refused and called for a ‘constructive perspective’ instead.

So, what has this got to do with managing employees in the context of the workplace we hear you ask!

Well, as you may have experienced yourself, at Jaluch we regularly come across clients trying to manage individuals who have raised grievances about issues that occurred many months, and quite often, years ago. None so far as we recall dating back 500 years though!

What is the time limit for raising a grievance?

The key question of course is, what is the time limit for raising a grievance? Many employees believe that they can bring up issues whenever they like, for example when it has festered for sufficiently long that they feel the time has come to act – often prompted of course by an employer led change such as a redundancy situation, a reorganisation, the introduction of new operating systems, a new manager etc.

You might have read about a current Coutts employee who is currently suing for age and sex discrimination on the grounds that she failed to gain promotion because of ‘unspoken sexism’. She details 31 years’ experience with the RBS group! So presumably employees can bring up very historic grievances?

“Sometimes, but not always”

If we say ‘sometimes, but not always’ will that explain things? Probably not! So, to put more meat on the bones, employees can raise a grievance for issues that took place years ago, but they will need to demonstrate why they are bringing the issue up now and why they failed to do so at the point of occurrence.

If they can’t provide an explanation or demonstrate relevance, then the employer (and Tribunal if it gets that far) is likely to not be very sympathetic and can probably state that the issue will not be investigated. Be very careful though if the historic issues set off loud warning bells: H&S, discrimination, whistleblowing etc. Don’t ignore issues that are historic without good consideration first – and get advice too if you are not an employment law expert!

Can time limits be put in place?

Some employers seek to overcome the issue of historic grievances rearing their very complicated heads by setting out in their grievance procedure that the company reserves the right not to respond to any issues more than 2 or 3 years old (you would need to be specific about which your organisation’s precise cut off point is).

If such a policy was in place, we would hope that you would actively encourage all staff to be aware of the cut off and as a result raise any grievances in a timely manner.

Be aware though that, as we mentioned earlier, there will be times when historic issues should be considered by the company, especially if they are relevant to a current claim, so don’t be too heavy handed in refusing to consider older grievances. If in doubt, ask us for expert advice!

Can anything be done to avoid this situation even occurring?  

Yes. Aside from discouraging historic issues to be raised as grievances, what we have learned from 20 years in business is that the key thing you can do is give your managers proper support. We generally find that far too many managers feel that they have no control over employee complaints and that all they can do is respond or duck down when issues arise. Managers too often tell us at the start of the leadership or management training we deliver to them that they lack both the confidence and know how when it comes to dealing with conflict and complaints.

That’s crazy! Why are you putting your managers in a situation that they will hate and probably feel resentful about? No one likes to feel their back is up against a wall. We strongly recommend that you equip your managers to deal with day to day gripes, conflict of all shapes and sizes, and also both informal and formal grievances as and when they arise.

We know it will cost you a day of their time and some budget too, but you can save your organisation a fortune by having managers who are on the ball, who deal with the tough stuff when it first arises and who head off grievances and tribunals before they ever get going. Your staff will thank you too as one of the most common complaints staff have about their mangers is that they fail to deal with the underperforming, negative or difficult employees.

It’s not complicated training your managers need, and in our experience just one day of good training can result in managers feeling so much more positive and empowered about handling the difficult stuff.  A client of ours a couple of years ago said that in the year following the training we delivered its impact had been felt all over the business with endless difficult issues that had been left unmanaged for years now being tackled successfully. Now that’s feedback that we love!

Stepping back a bit though, we also find that sometimes though managers miss the cue that an employee is not happy. They don’t really clock that the situation needs managing. Here are some things you could ask your managers to look out for:

  • Head in the sand – this is the employee who always ignores potential conflict and carries on like everything is fine until one day they can’t take it anymore and have a meltdown – which then becomes your (the managers) problem!
  • The emotional one – the employee who seems to get upset a lot of the time or has sudden outbursts of anger. If you don’t help them understand an appropriately control their emotional responses you may find yourself facing a grievance in due course.
  • The rebel – this is the employee who always kicks back at internal processes and procedures. If you don’t find out exactly what drives this behaviour it may become an increasingly bigger problem
  • The bitter or negative one – we have all known this person, it’s the employee who always makes sarcastic comments about people, decisions, the Company etc. Nothing is ever quite right for them and its always someone else’s fault. Just having this person in the team can drive grievances from those who job satisfaction, wellbeing is impacted by the negativity. Negativity is a choice; your manager needs to know that and be able to tell their bitter employee to make a different choice or face the consequences.
  • Absent minded and clearly disengaged – this is the employee who would rather be elsewhere than at work. Your manager needs to find out the root cause of their disengagement and tackle it before it becomes a major problem.

Your managers are the gate-keepers, the ones with the responsibility of needing to know the person well enough to tell if this out of the norm for that individual, or why they are behaving this way and have the ability to have tackle this and have such discussions with them. None of us are born having the know how and confidence to deal with conflict. It needs to be learnt so give your managers a chance!

And finally…

  1. Review your grievance procedure: why not include an informal stage if your policy doesn’t already have one. Consider also including a time limit for historic grievances.
  2. Check your managers and supervisors actually know what the grievance procedure says. Also ask them whether they have the know how and confidence to manage conflict and grievances.
  3. Involve your staff representatives if you have them. Ask them about their ideas for how the company can reduce conflict and complaints. Get them to communicate with staff about the procedure and the need to raise issues as and when they arise rather than stewing on them
  4. Think about your culture. What can you do to address any themes that regularly arise in grievances and/or tribunal complaints. Get to the root cause of issues and you might find both managers and staff are a lot more satisfied.

Jaluch run practical training courses to equip managers, supervisors and HR professionals with the necessary skills to deal with employment relations issues (such as grievances) and to help create a more productive workplace.

If you have the in-house expertise, we also provide full training courses ready for you to pick up and deliver the content yourself! Find out more info on our downloadable training materials.

Some of the training courses we offer:

  • Staff Representatives
  • Managing Grievances
  • Personal Confidence
  • Gender Intelligence
  • Team Development
  • Independent Thinking Skills
  • Profiling – Colourwise/DISC

Read on if you have an extra 5 mins:

Quite recently one of our Consultants had a conversation with a friend (let’s call her Pat) who was despairing following a return to work after a period on Maternity leave. Whilst she had been away there had been some changes to her team and on her return, she learnt that she had inherited a new team member who had a reputation for her bad attitude and for whom over the previous 16 years had been passed from pillar to post around the organisation. No-wanted to manage her or have her in their team but no-one had been courageous enough to tackle the issue. Pat was in the same ‘avoidance’ boat.

The next time our Consultant bumped into Pat what she heard was a completely different story. She asked her how her team were doing and in particular her ‘problem child’. We were gob-smacked to hear her response… ‘She’s the best most productive member of my team’. When asked what had happened, she said, ‘I decided enough was enough, it was tough, it took some courage but we had a conversation about her attitude and how she came across. She was mortified, she had no idea how she was perceived and confessed that she had never had any negative feedback before. We agreed she had some great qualities, positives, that I was happy for us to put a line in the sand, to never look back and that’s what we did. I couldn’t be happier, it’s all worked out, she’s fantastic, she’s taken the feedback and we’ve all moved on’.

The morale of this story is it’s never too late to manage, motivate and turn around a perceived ‘problem’ employee, don’t shy away from difficult conversations, we don’t look forward to them, that’s what makes them difficult but preparation is key.

If you have any questions about anything covered in this article, have a query about a grievance claim or any other employment related issues, please contact us!

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