What is a grievance? Describe the grievance process and what it does for both the administration and the employee.

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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A grievance is a process provided for in a collective bargaining agreement between an organization and its employees or a procedure implemented by an organization without a union to resolve issues that arise between management and employees.  It is essentially a complaint against management by an employee or a union.  The subject of a grievance could be any matter that is part of the collective bargaining agreement, for example, a complaint about an improper disciplinary procedure or a failure to pay overtime.  In an organization in which there is no union, a grievance could involve any term or condition of employment that the organization agrees can be grieved about. 

The early steps of most grievance procedures are somewhat informal, whether the organization has a union or not.  In a union situation, an employee tells his or her steward, a "local" union representative, what the complaint is, and the steward investigates.  If the steward sees the legitimacy of the complaint, the steward arranges a meeting with management, not necessarily at a high level, often the employee's immediate supervisor, and a union representative is present at the meeting to represent the employee.  Where there is no collective bargaining agreement, the organization's policy outlines the process to grieve, which is often similar, a request for a meeting with one's immediate supervisor to express the complaint. If the grievance is not resolved at this point, higher levels of management and higher levels of union officials are engaged, to try to resolve the problem. 

When grievances are not resolved at these early levels, the collective bargaining agreement or the organization's policy will provide for bringing in an outside arbitrator, someone neutral, trained to arbitrate employee/management disputes and render a decision, one that the management and union and/or employee agree to abide by. 

The advantages for the organization and the employee are many. First, were it not for the grievance procedure, an organization could find itself subject to a great many lawsuits, often about trivial matters. This would be costly and time-consuming, completely undesirable, whether the entity is for-profit or non-profit. Since most grievances are resolved early in the grievance process, there is a savings in time and money for the organization. From the perspective of the individual employee and/or the union, the same holds true. Litigation is just as costly and time-consuming for employees and unions as it is for organizations, and few individuals have extra time or money to pursue in a court of law a problem in the workplace.  Second, a grievance procedure provides a perception of fairness in the workplace, for managers, employees, and unions. Having a procedure and process in place makes all the stakeholders feel that decisions are not unfair or arbitrary, and that, at the very worst, a neutral third party will render a completely fair decision.  Third, a grievance procedure provides for a more satisfied workplace, which is an advantage to both sides, since employees feel they have an opportunity to be heard, and this makes for a more harmonious and efficient operation, which should always be a goal of management. 

Whether or not an organization has unionized employees, a grievance procedure, with clear guidelines for its process, is an advantage in the workplace.  Workplaces that lack such a process and procedure create an environment of uncertainty, a perception of unfairness, and a risk of costly and time-consuming litigation. 

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