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How to make a complaint

Your work has a duty to tell you what their procedure is. It is usually called the grievance procedure. You should be able to find it by looking in your contract, staff handbook or work Intranet. The procedure should tell you how you raise a grievance, who you should raise it with, and how your complaint will be dealt with. If you can’t find it, ask your line manager or someone from Human Resources or Personnel.

Try The Informal Approach

Once you’ve decided to make a complaint stick with it...

When people raise grievances, they often start to doubt they are doing the right thing. If you are unlucky, your employer might say things like; “Are you really going to make a fuss about this?”

Prepare to be blocked and discouraged at each stage of the process. If you give up, your situation won’t get any better and it could weaken any complaints you raise in future.

The informal approach

It is usually best to start by trying to solve the problem informally.

  • Try talking to your line manager, or another manager, or someone from Human Resources or Personnel who you feel comfortable with.
  • Make sure you speak to someone senior, who is in a position to deal with the situation.
  • Don’t confront the person involved in the discrimination directly. If you do, it is in danger of becoming a personal dispute, rather than a problem for your employer to deal with.
  • Immediately after the conversation, make a brief note of what was said by both of you, and the time and date you spoke.

The benefit of the informal approach is that it is quicker and less daunting than making a formal complaint, and is less likely to damage your working relationships. It might be all that’s needed to sort things out. But remember, even though it’s informal, you still need to find out what they are going to do to deal with the problem and follow it up to make sure something is done. If they fob you off, you may have to take a more formal approach.

The informal route may not be suitable for you. You might decide things have gone too far to sort it out informally, or perhaps the only person you could speak to is involved in the discrimination. If so, you are better off starting with a formal grievance.

“I’ve got cerebral palsy and find climbing stairs hard. My office is on the first floor and there is no lift. I told my supervisor that I had a problem. She was really uptight about it and told me to put it all in writing and inform our Managing Partner. I didn’t really want to cause a fuss, but she said that it was company policy.”
Matt, Nottingham

You might find that once you touch on anything which could be seen as discrimination, alarm bells start ringing with your boss. Employers are often wary of dealing with discrimination because it is such a serious issue and if they don’t address it properly, they could get in a lot of trouble. Sometimes it is company policy to deal with potential discrimination in a formal way from the outset.

The formal approach

You should only make things more formal if you have had no joy with trying to sort it out casually. If you decide to make a formal complaint, you should follow your employer's procedure. It should be similar to the procedure outlined below.

1. Tell them about the problem in writing

Put Your Grievance In Writing
The first step is to write a letter that clearly sets out the problem.

Your work's grievance procedure should tell you who to send it to. If it is the same person that you are complaining about, ask Human Resources or Personnel if there is someone else you could send it to.

Don't put off writing the letter. It is important that you do it as soon as you can because, if they don't deal with your complaint properly, you might want to take the issue to an employment tribunal. You must make a complaint to an employment tribunal in 3 months less one day of the event you are complaining about taking place.


  • If you tried to resolve the problem informally first, mention that in the letter and explain what the outcome was.
  • Try to include as much detail as possible about the complaint. The more details your employer has about the problem, the more efficiently they will be able to deal with it.
  • You may be wary about accusing people of discrimination in your letter, but it is very important that you do, and that you spell out the type of discrimination you have suffered (for example, racial harassment, or different treatment on the grounds of race). Failure to do so may scupper any later claim you make to the tribunal. If you believe you have been the victim of more than one type of discrimination, you must mention both types in your letter.
  • Try to maintain a professional tone in your letter. It’s ok to say how certain behaviour made you feel but don’t attack other staff, or use offensive language, as it will undermine what you’re saying.
  • If you can, say how you would like your work to resolve the problem.
  • If you have more than one complaint, set them out in sub-headings, giving examples. Start with the most serious.
  • Date the letter and keep a copy.

If you don’t feel confident about putting your complaint in writing, you can get help from your union or local advice agency.

2. Have a meeting to discuss it

When they receive your letter, they should invite you to a meeting to discuss your complaint. The meeting should be held fairly soon, at a reasonably convenient time and place for you. It will often be within 5 working days, but maybe sooner if the problem is urgent, or later if they have to find out more about what you have said.

If you are nearing the time limit for taking a claim to an employment tribunal, you should consider making the application now. You don’t have to wait for your employer to respond to your complaint first, but it is good practice to do so as long as it won’t mean missing the Tribunal deadline.

You should make every effort to attend the meeting. If you don’t and the Employment Tribunal decides you did not have a good reason for not attending then they will reduce your compensation. Your employer should give you the opportunity to discuss your complaint and to say how you want them to sort it out. When they have heard what you have to say, they might need to adjourn the meeting to give them time to investigate your complaint.

Take A Colleague The law requires your employer to allow you to bring a colleague, trade union representative, or a trade union official with you to the meeting and they must give the colleague time off work to attend the meeting. If you would prefer to take a friend or family member, they should allow you to (particularly if you have a disability), but you should ask if it is ok. It’s a good idea to take someone with you as it will help give you confidence and a witness to what is said.

If you have made a complaint about a colleague, your employer could consider talking to them before holding the meeting with you.


  • Try not to panic or feel intimidated – you have a right to have your complaint heard.
  • If English is not your first language and you sometimes have difficulty understanding everything, ask your employer to arrange for an interpreter.
  • If you, or the person accompanying you, will need any help because of a disability, ask your employer to arrange it for you.
  • It is also a good idea to ask for a note taker to be present. This is very helpful as it means you will have a proper record of the meeting.
  • You might also want to ask your employer if any other member of staff has made a similar complaint.
  • Before you go to the meeting, think about what you want to say and how they might respond. Make a list of the issues you want to cover.
  • During the meeting, if you, or your employer, say something that you think is important, ask the note taker (if there is one) to record that point.
  • At the end of the meeting ask if you can read through the notes. If there is something that you don't think has been recorded correctly, you can try and sort it out there and then. If you aren't able to see the notes until later, tell your employer about anything you disagree with in writing as soon as possible (you could use email), and keep a copy.
  • If you bring someone with you, ask them to take notes, or make your own notes immediately after the meeting.

They should let you know what they have decided to do about your grievance fairly soon. They shouldn't tell you at the end of the meeting, as they should take time to think it over. When they tell you what they have decided, they should also tell you that you have a right to appeal if you are still unhappy. You are responsible for making sure that you are within time limits for taking the issue to a tribunal, so you need to follow things up.

“On the morning of the meeting I was so nervous I just couldn’t face it, so I took the day off sick...”
Marc, London

People often stall because it is stressful, but postponing things can be even worse. You must make every effort to attend meetings. If you appear uncooperative, and the case ends up at tribunal, your employer could argue that you delayed and any award you get could be reduced.

Management's Responsibility

3. Appeal

If you are not satisfied with the way your work has dealt with your problem, you can appeal against their decision. If you decide to do this, you should tell your work in writing as soon as possible. Your work may set a deadline of when you need to tell them by - try to keep within their deadline, but don’t be put off if you miss it.

Don’t just repeat what you put in your original letter, you need to respond to the decision they have made. Highlight what you think the decision-maker overlooked or didn’t understand about your complaint. Make sure you keep a copy of your letter.

Your work should then arrange another meeting to discuss your appeal, with someone more senior if possible. In a small workplace, this could be the owner or a management committee member. The same rules apply as for the first meeting.

After the appeal meeting, your work should give you their decision in writing. Your work may or may not give you further rights of appeal after this.

It’s advisable to take your complaint as far as you can with your employer - but, if you think you might want to take it to an employment tribunal, keep an eye on your deadline!

Time limits

  • If you intend to take a case to an employment tribunal, it is important to know that there are strict time limits. You only have 3 months less one day from the date the problem you are complaining about happened to lodge your claim at the tribunal.
  • In most cases, you should try to give your written complaint to your work as soon as possible, so that they have a chance to deal with it before you lodge your complaint at the Tribunal.
  • Time limits can be complicated and do change depending on the complaint. You should always get advice from an experienced adviser about what time limits apply to your case.
  • Make a note of deadlines in your diary, and don’t leave things until the last minute - you could lose your right to make a claim if you are late.

December 2011

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Dealing with discrimination?

Franklyn New

The law protects you from being discriminated against at work because you are in the minority. Don't just put up with it. Our discrimination section explains exactly what discrimination is illegal and what you can do about it. Go to Is that discrimination?

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