What Is a Grievance?

You may be wondering, "What is a grievance?" The word "grievance" is a formal employee complaint that is an accusation of a violation of workplace contract terms or policy, and could be a complaint about anything regarding being noncompliant in work policies or similar regulation. A grievance may be filed if an employee feels they were negatively affected by an employer. Individuals and groups can file grievances. They can relate to a contract violation or even violations of the collective bargaining agreement and other policies.

What Is the Grievance Procedure?

The grievance procedure lays out the rules and method for documenting, presenting, and settling workplace disputes. The meeting steps are usually defined in the contract between union and management. The first step in many procedures is to pinpoint where the grievance began, for example with a supervisor or direct report, who then must determine, along with the union rep, whether or not the grievance is valid. In cases where the grievance is not resolved, the case is escalated to the next level. It's not necessary that grievance procedures be formal; this may actually discourage people from coming forward.

In a union workplace, a grievance usually refers to the employer not complying with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. A violation of this agreement can involve failing to provide required pay or not maintaining safe work conditions. Both groups of workers and individuals may file a grievance, and grievances can involve a variety of issues, including violations of workplace policies. While many grievances are contract-related, there does not need to be a contractual violation in order to file a grievance.

Labor unions generally have a strict procedure for filing grievances:

  • The employee makes their complaint to a union representative or some other official.
  • The union representative completes a form and then files this form with the union for review.
  • The union files the form and any other relevant documents. Filing can occur in either a physical or electronic database.
  • Both the labor union and the grievance representative will track the complaint as it makes its way through arbitration.

Generally, grievances can get resolved through either mediation or arbitration. In unionized workplaces, however, there is usually a set policy for resolving grievances, whether they occur between employees and management or between coworkers. Although some organizations have unique procedures for handling grievances, there will usually be a specific set of steps that must be followed.

If the grievance procedure has reached completion and the employee is unhappy with the result, they may need to escalate the situation. Collective bargaining agreements, which are common in union workplaces, will usually lay out the steps for resolving grievances, and even nonunion workplaces will usually have formal grievance procedures.

Grievance procedures, while most commonly used by employees, can resolve disputes raised by a variety of persons:

  1. Customers
  2. Competitors
  3. Suppliers

Basically, grievance procedures create a hierarchy for raising and solving disputes in the workplace. Most people understand grievance procedures in terms of labor contracts.

Every workplace, whether there is a union or not, needs firm grievance procedures. That said, companies should be proactive about preventing grievances by upholding their written policies.

The purpose of grievance procedures is to help management identify problems in the organization before they affect employee satisfaction. These procedures also provide employees with a communication channel to management. Unfortunately, resolving grievances often creates an adversarial relationship between management and employees. Companies need to make sure that their procedures for dealing with grievances include measures to avoid bad feelings towards whomever has filed the complaint.

What to Do If Your Employer Is Violating a Contract

Grievance procedures will largely depend on the business in which you are employed. In a small business, for example, the employee manual may outline grievance procedures, and it may only be a few lines of text. A small business may also have an ombudsman charged with handling grievances, or may allow peer review of employee complaints.

Understanding the basics of what a grievance is will make it easier for you to engage in the grievance process when you have a complaint. First, you should be sure that you're carefully reading your contract so that you can understand your workplace's specific grievance procedures. Pay attention to rules for what you should do prior to filing a grievance.

Most employment contracts will include steps and timelines for dealing with a grievance. If you're not careful about following these steps and timelines, it's possible that your complaint will be determined to be invalid, even if there is merit to your grievance. You should immediately contact your union representative if you think there are grounds for filing a grievance.

Filing a Grievance

Every contract should include specific grievance procedures that outline the steps to be followed, so they are not deemed invalid. Once you think an event has occurred which may give rise to a grievance, contact your steward or union representative. This individual will give you a "grievance/issue investigation form" that will require the following information:

  • Who is involved?
  • What happened?
  • Where did the incident occur?
  • Why it is a grievance?
  • How should the issue be resolved?
  • How Do I Write a Grievance?

One of the first steps to have a grievance process is to raise the issue verbally to a line supervisor. This allows the opportunity for the grievance to be resolved informally at the lowest possible level. Most issues can be resolved without putting them in writing. Instead, there are employee assistance programs, mediation via a neutral third party, and problem-solving techniques via union officials.

Other agreements do not permit employees to file a grievance without assistance and approval of the union. If you want to file a grievance, there is safety in numbers. Discretely reach out to your coworkers if they have similar complaints. You can consult a lawyer to find a precedent to support your case. Have a compromise prepared because there may be push back.

In the case of unions, a normal grievance procedure is kicked off when an employee presents an issue to his immediate supervisor. The supervisor then has a certain amount of time to respond or escalate the grievance to the head of the department or another superior.

If that does not resolve the issue, the grievance will continue to go up the chain of command until eventually, it may reach the president of the local union. If the proper procedures are not followed at any juncture, the contract in place usually says that the union must drop the grievance. In some cases, a mediator may step in to help further alleviate the problem. This may be done to help the parties resolve the issue before having a formal arbitration.

Information to Include

If you've completed the above steps and still believe you need to file a written grievance, you need to be sure to include the correct information. Your union representative can help you prepare your written complaint, which should generally include the following info:

  1. The time and date of the event that led to the grievance.
  2. The name of the person the grievance is against.
  3. The name of the person filing the grievance.
  4. The current step of the grievance process.
  5. A description of the facts of the grievance.
  6. An indication of what parts of the contract were violated.
  7. A proposed solution to the grievance.

Every contract can have unique requirements for what information must be included in a written grievance, so you should review your contract before you start working on your grievance. While writing your grievance, don't place limits on what portions of the contract were violated or ways to remedy the grievance.

Complaints Not Related to Contractual Violations

Not every workplace issue will be related to a contractual violation. For example, there can be conflicts between employees, between an individual employee and a supervisor, and even personal problems. Generally, these issues do not warrant the filing of a grievance. This is because management is not involved, and there is no violation of a contract or agreement.

If you're experiencing one of these issues, you should still talk with your union representative. Even though you likely won't be able to file a grievance, your representative may still be able to help you resolve the issue in several ways:

  1. Connecting you with programs meant to assist employees.
  2. Setting up mediation with a trained professional.
  3. Teaching you techniques for problem solving.
  4. Directing you to a union official that may be able to help.

A steward's primary responsibility is enforcing labor contracts, not listening to minor employee complaints.

Can I File a Grievance Against a Coworker?

No, since the agreement is between management and the union and not between individual employees. If an employee violates the contract, like working overtime without getting paid, the grievance is against the employer. Or, if an employee sexually harasses a coworker, the complaint is against the employer for failing to protect the employee from sexual harassment.

Filing a grievance is not appropriate if an employee is taking too much time off or slacking at work since this is not a violation of the contract. An employee may not file a grievance against his or her supervisor if they think they are unprofessional or incompetent. Only if they manage poorly by violating a contract provision can you file a contract violation grievance.

Limitations of Grievances

If grievance procedures are effective, they will help management identify and remedy problems within an organization before they grow into larger problems. In some cases, the settling of grievances becomes a sort of scorecard that reinforces an "us versus them" mentality between labor and management. It is vital that a company's grievance procedures include steps to prevent a backlash against those who choose to use them.

A grievance is a formal complaint lodged by an employee against his or her employer. Other conflicts can be resolved without the use of a formal grievance, but if this is not the case, the employee will need to state the facts of the incident that led to them filing a grievance. When working with the union, the steps are well defined and must be handled within prescribed time limits.

If you need help with a grievance, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Stripe, and Twilio.