workplace dispute

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An Employer’s Guide to Resolving Workplace Disputes

At a time when everyone’s efforts are focused on keeping their businesses afloat, the last thing anyone needs is having to deal with employee disputes.

However, something that can appear minor on the surface, has the potential to escalate to something much bigger and can end up resulting in costly claims.

What is a dispute?

In this article we are focusing solely on disputes raised by employees. These are often referred to as complaints or grievances and can cover a variety of concerns. For example:

Can disputes be resolved by informal discussions?


Most organisations have a grievance procedure which sets out the process by which an employee can raise any concerns with their employer. Although that doesn’t mean that every dispute needs to be dealt with formally.

What is the difference between a formal and an informal dispute?

There really isn’t a difference necessarily- a dispute is still a dispute.

The difference is how the dispute is dealt with. For example, your employee may be satisfied by speaking to you informally about their concerns and you may agree a suitable resolution. On other occasions the dispute may be raised formally or may be better dealt with formally via your company grievance procedure.

What is a grievance procedure?

Usually set out in your Employee Handbook, a grievance procedure/policy sets out how an employee can go about raising a dispute either formally or informally.

A grievance procedure should include the following:

  • Who an employee should raise their concerns to in the first instance?
  • How that complaint will be handled
  • The timescales involved in resolving the dispute
  • How the outcome of their complaint will be communicated
  • What to do if they wish to appeal that outcome

I run a small business and have a good working relationship with all my staff. I have always managed to resolve any issues informally. Do I need a grievance procedure?

It is good practice to have a grievance procedure.

It is great to be able to resolve matters informally and having a formal grievance procedure doesn’t prevent you from doing so. However, there will come a time when a dispute arises that cannot be resolved informally despite your best efforts.

Having a grievance procedure in place means both you and your employees have a clear understanding of how formal disputes will be handled.  This in turn promotes good employee relations, saves time in the long run and ensures that you are consistent in your handling of disputes- which is vital to avoid suggestions of bias.

I don’t have multi-tiers of management in my company, in fact there is only me. What if a formal grievance is raised against me?

Try not to take it personally. Keep your focus on resolution. Take a step back.

This is easier said than done but even the most experienced business owner or HR professional would struggle to remain objective when the finger is being pointed at them.

Don’t pour over the complaint and get yourself worked up, this is when people tend to react and make bad decisions. Instead appoint someone else to deal with the grievance on behalf of the company. This could be your accountant, a business associate, an external HR consultant and so on.

Care needs to be taken though because you can be very easily accused of bias if you appoint your best mate or sibling for example. Speak to our experts- Avensure may be able to provide additional support to assist you.

I have an employee who has raised a formal grievance and they have been absent due to work related stress. I have taken them through the full grievance procedure, they disagreed with the decision not to uphold their concerns and appealed. The appeal process has also been completed and upheld the original findings. The employee is still absent as they feel their concerns have not been satisfactorily resolved. What can I do?

It will depend very much on the nature of the grievance.

If it was a grievance raised against a co-worker or manager and the employee feels they can no longer work with this individual, you should consider mediation.

This is where a third party is appointed to try and move the matter forward. It is not there to re-hash the grievance necessarily; the aim is to try and clear the air and, in this case, reach a solution agreeable to all parties to enable the employee to be able to return to work and resume positive working relations.

Mediation can prove to be very useful where personality clashes are concerned or where one or both parties feel the working relationship has broken down.

I have offered mediation, but the employee is refusing to engage. Can I insist?

Mediation is not something you can ‘force’ someone to take part in.

If the purpose of the mediation is fully explained and only offered by someone impartial with the appropriate experience, the offer of mediation will not do you any harm if the dispute leads to tribunal action because it shows your commitment to trying to reach a resolution.

Regarding the employee’s sickness absence, you must ensure that you seek advice from us in respect of handling the long-term absence.

Please see our article on managing long-term absence

REMEMBER– Even though you feel that you are in a state of deadlock, NEVER ask an employee to resign!

An employee has said that they are being bullied. They have raised their concerns with me but they do not wish to make a formal complaint, nor do they want me to let their alleged bully know they have raised a concern. What do I do?

We can’t force someone to raise a formal complaint, however an allegation of bullying is very serious and seldom ‘goes away’.

You need to reassure the employee that you have a duty of care to ensure that any allegation of bullying is investigated. Ask them to give you as much information as they can verbally, if they don’t want to make a written statement and ask them if they will be comfortable with you speaking to that person on their behalf.

Often an unwillingness to come forward stems from fear of intimidation. If the allegations are particularly serious it may be better to suspend the alleged perpetrator whilst the matter is looked into, irrespective of whether the person making the allegation wants to raise a formal complaint or not.

Remember- it is imperative that you seek advice before suspending an employee.

I have had reason to commence a disciplinary investigation with an employee and they have now raised a formal grievance. This is a tactic to delay the disciplinary procedure. Can they do this?

This is very common and the answer to the question is ‘yes’. However, the grievance procedure is not there as a stick to beat employers over the head with nor is it to be used as a tool for employees to obstruct or delay disciplinary investigations.

That said, don’t assume because of the timing that allegation is malicious or unfounded. If the grievance is not directly connected to the disciplinary procedure and alleges discrimination for example (perhaps against the manager responsible for the disciplinary investigation) it is important that the disciplinary is placed on hold and the grievance dealt with first.

However, if the employee is raising a grievance connected to the disciplinary proceedings, for example, they are disputing the allegations against them, it is usually appropriate for those concerns to be addressed as part of the disciplinary process.

I have received a formal grievance from a group of 6 staff against one of their managers. They have said they wish to pursue their complaint formally via the grievance procedure. Do I need to have 6 separate grievance meetings?

This could prove very time consuming and repetitive, so you may want to speak to or write to the 6 employees and ask that they appoint one or more representatives to take part in the grievance procedure on behalf of the group.

Can an employee appeal the outcome of a grievance?


The outcome of the grievance should inform the employee of their right to appeal, the time scale to raise an appeal and to whom.

The appeal should be dealt with by someone not already involved or implicated in the original complaint/investigation.

And finally, remember that whilst there are common threads to many workplace disputes, every case is different. Please contact our experts at the earliest possible opportunity so that we can provide your business with bespoke advice and guidance.

Please ensure that you seek advice from our experts as there is not always a ‘one size fits all’ answer to a lot of these scenarios and mistakes will be ever more costly for your business in the current climate. Please quote your Client Account Number on all correspondence and telephone calls. 24-hour client advice line: 0800 151 2935