Using a grievance procedure to deal with problems at work formally
- What can you make a formal grievance about?
- Why use the grievance procedure?
- Things to consider before raising a grievance
- Grievance procedures
- Stages in a grievance procedure
- After using the grievance procedure
- How to get free advice
- How to get good paid for advice
- For information about trade unions
- What does it mean?
- About this guide
If you have a complaint about something happening at your work, it is often good to try to deal with the problem informally first.
What is a grievance?
A ‘grievance’ is the word used to mean a concern, problem or complaint you have about your work. If you complain to your employer about something to do with your work, this is often called ‘raising a grievance’.
But if you have tried that, or if the problem is very serious like discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment, or if there is serious wrong-doing at work you might want the complaint to be dealt with formally. The way to do this is to use the grievance procedure.
A grievance procedure is a written policy, setting out the steps you and your employer should follow to resolve a problem you have at work.
Every workplace must have a grievance procedure - if your employer doesn’t have their own one, they must follow the Acas code of practice on disciplinary or grievance procedures. Every employer’s procedure must be as fair as the Acas code.
You can use the grievance procedure whether you have been working there for two years or two weeks. Only employees have the right to be able to raise a grievance. However, some employers will deal with issues raised by non-employees (such as a casual worker, agency worker, or someone on a zero hour contract), so it’s still worth trying if you do have a problem.
If your work place has its own grievance procedure, it should be in writing and easy to find. It should have been given a copy or told where to find it when you were given your contract of employment. Or look for it in a staff handbook, or on a shared drive or intranet. If you cannot find it ask your line manager, someone from HR, or another manager. Your work has a duty to tell you what their procedure is.
What can you make a formal grievance about?
Employee grievances are normally about things like:
- Working hours and breaks
- Problems with health and safety
- Work relationships
- Bullying and harassment
- Changes in working practices or organisational change
There are a few types of complaint which you can’t make using a grievance procedure. For example, you can’t use a grievance procedure to complain about being made redundant, or the fact that your employer ends a fixed term contract rather than renewing it. If you are in this position, you may want to get some advice.
Why use the grievance procedure?
The main purpose of a grievance procedure is to resolve a problem. It enables employees to complain about problems in the workplace and get them resolved internally by management before they develop into major difficulties.
You are unlikely to get money compensation as a result of using a grievance procedure. For this you will usually need to take a claim to an employment tribunal. But not all grievances can move on and form the basis for an employment tribunal claim. Contact your trade union or the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) early in the grievance process to get advice about whether to take your case to an employment tribunal as well. ACAS is an independent organisation that provides free and impartial information and advice on problems in the workplace and employment law.
You may also want to use a grievance procedure to:
1. Improve your work situation in the future
A successful grievance can resolve a problem so that something about your work improves in the future.
2. Make an immediate difference to your work situation
It is important to tackle a problem while it is still causing difficulties. Don’t wait and complain afterwards.
Facing problems at work can be daunting and really stressful, even more so if you think the reason is discrimination. People often don’t complain about discrimination because they worry it will be seen as an over-reaction, or that complaining will only make things worse. But no-one should have to suffer discrimination at work, which is why there are laws to make employers put a stop to it. If you only complain after the discrimination has ended, there isn't much your employers can do about it.
3. Complain if you are being unfairly disciplined
If your boss takes disciplinary action against you, and you think the real problem is that they are discriminating against you, you can use your work’s grievance procedure to complain. Your employer should consider putting the disciplinary action on hold and hearing your complaint first. Where the disciplinary and grievance cases are related, the ACAS Code of Practice says it may be appropriate to deal with both cases at the same time, and you can ask for this to happen.
If the disciplinary procedure has been completed and you have been given an unfair disciplinary warning, you can appeal. You can also complain about the discriminatory treatment, and ask that the appeal and your complaint (grievance) are heard at the same time.
The ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures sets out how employers should deal with complaints made by their staff. By law they must follow this code of practice and if your employer doesn't they may have to pay you more compensation if you take a successful claim to an employment tribunal.
4. Complain if you have been disciplined under a disciplinary policy which doesn’t give you a right of appeal
All disciplinary procedures should give you a right of appeal. If yours does not, you can raise a grievance as a way of appealing the result of the disciplinary. In your complaint, you will need to point out that there is no appeal in the disciplinary procedure and ask your employer to treat your complaint as your appeal.
Things to consider before raising a grievance
Before you make a complaint, it is important to think clearly about whether it’s what you want to do. Consider discussing the problem informally with your manager or another suitable person at work before raising a formal complaint.
Your employer may offer free mediation to solve workplace problems, especially if they’re a larger employer. This means getting an outside mediator who is neutral to you and your employer to discuss the issues with both of you. Generally this would happen at an early stage, before the formal grievance process starts, but it can be useful at any stage. Check your grievance procedure to see if your employer offers this.
The pros and cons of making a complaint
- You might succeed in putting a stop to the problem. Things are unlikely to change if you don’t tell people about the problem or make your unhappiness with the situation understood.
- If your complaint is about discrimination or harassment and you make your employer aware of this, it’s up to them to stop it. If they don’t do all they reasonably can to stop it, you could take them to an employment tribunal and possibly get compensation. Your work can’t be held responsible if they don’t know about the discrimination or harassment.
- If you don't use the grievance procedure, and instead take the problem straight to an employment tribunal, any compensation you get might be reduced by up to 25%.
- It can be stressful. You will probably have to attend meetings with senior management.
- Making a complaint may damage work relationships. No one likes to hear criticism about themselves, even if it’s true.
- Think about the practicalities of your situation at work. It might not be worth making a complaint if your problem is only temporary, unless the problem is having a considerable impact on your health and wellbeing.
- If you are unsure about whether to complain about something, see if you can get help from an experienced employment adviser. If you are a member of a trade union, your representative should be able to help.
Don’t do it for the wrong reasons
You should only use your work’s grievance procedure if you have a good reason to. Don’t do it in order to get back at someone because you’re angry.
Take a step back from the situation
Take a few deep breaths. Think objectively about what or who you are unhappy with, and why. It may help to talk things through with someone you trust to get things in perspective.
What do you want to achieve?
Think about the outcome you want. What would you do if you were the employer? If you can suggest a way forward when you make your complaint, it shows your employer that you are willing to be helpful and you are more likely to get at least some of what you want.
If the problem you are complaining about is still happening, keep a diary of each event as a record. Keep safe any other evidence, like emails. Familiarise yourself with how your work’s grievance procedure works and make sure you have read any bits of your contract which may be relevant.
When people make complaints, 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?”
Be prepared to be discouraged at each stage of the process. Remember that if you give up, your situation is unlikely to get any better and it could weaken any complaints you raise in future.
What do I do if there isn’t a grievance procedure where I work?
If you cannot find a grievance procedure, or if there isn’t one, follow the basic steps set out in Stages in a grievance procedure
Make your complaint promptly
Check your work’s grievance procedure soon after the problem has occurred because most grievance procedures have a timescale for bringing a complaint. This is often three months or less from the date the problem happened or started. If you leave it too long, you may find you can no longer use the procedure as a way of sorting out your problem.
Make sure your employer deals with your complaint promptly
Make sure your employer deals with your grievance quickly at every stage. Your work’s grievance procedure should have a timescale in it. If your employer is not doing anything about it swiftly, chase them up in person, by phone, or email to find out what’s going on. Keep a record of when you did this and what you said.
If you want to take your issue to an employment tribunal, you must bear in mind the time limits for doing this. The basic time limit for an employment tribunal case is 3 months less 1 day from the act you are complaining about. The clock does not stop running because you have lodged a grievance. You must also use Acas’s Early Conciliation service before you can start a claim in the employment tribunal. For more information about this, see Time limits and employment tribunals heading on our Employment tribunals page.
If your work’s grievance procedure is taking too long and it looks like you might miss the deadline, begin your tribunal claim. You can’t afford to wait or delay. If you are in this position, try to talk to an experienced adviser, or your union if you are a member, as well as contacting the Acas Early Conciliation service.
It’s a good thing if your employer has an opportunity to deal with your grievance before you go to an employment tribunal, but not if it means missing the tribunal deadline. You are responsible for staying within the time limit for making a claim to an employment tribunal.
If others have a similar grievance
If you and another employee have made a very similar grievance, then your employer should still follow the grievance procedure. They should also keep all information about your grievance or what happened to you confidential, and they should consider what each of you wants as an outcome.
Stages in a grievance procedure
The informal stage
Many problems at work are best sorted out informally. 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. See how to resolve problems at work informally.
If it is serious or things have already gone too far it may not be possible to sort out informally. Or if the only person in a position to sort it out is the person causing the problem. In these situations, it may be better to go straight to the formal stage of your grievance procedure.
You might find that if you touch on anything which could be seen as discrimination, your boss might not want to deal with the problem informally. Employers are often wary of dealing with discrimination because it is such a serious issue and if they don’t deal with it properly, they can get in a lot of trouble. Sometimes it is company policy to always deal with potential discrimination in a formal way.
The formal stage
There are three steps in the formal stage.
Step 1 – Tell your employer about the problem in writing
Write a letter to your employer that clearly sets out the problem and, if possible, explains what you want them to do to resolve the problem.
Many larger employers will have a form which they expect you to complete. But they cannot refuse to deal with a letter from you, provided that it is clearly a letter of complaint. If it is easy to get hold of your employer’s grievance form, it is better to use that.
Whether you write a letter or use your employer’s form, you should make sure that it is dated and signed, and that you keep a copy. You may be able to send in your grievance by email.
Your grievance procedure should tell you who to send your complaint to. If it is the person you are complaining about, and the grievance procedure doesn’t give you an alternative, you will need to ask whoever is responsible for personnel to tell you who to write to.
What to put in the letter/form
- Explain what the problem or behaviour is that you are concerned about. Try to maintain a professional and neutral tone. It is ok to say how certain behaviour has made you feel, but remember that attacks on other staff or offensive language will undermine what you are saying. Remember that you want people to read your complaint and want to try to solve it.
- Include enough detail to enable your employer to deal with the complaint. Include the dates of incidents and who was involved. Your employer is unlikely to look at complaints which are more than a few months old, unless they are part of a long chain of events, or there is a very good reason why you are only raising them now.
- If you have more than one complaint, start with the most serious. After your most serious complaint, it is often useful to list your complaints in date order.
- If your complaint is lengthy, use sub-headings, and number your paragraphs and pages to help those reading it.
If you tried to resolve the problem informally first, explain that and say what the outcome was.
- Try to stay focused on what you want as the outcome - the solution you would like. Say as clearly as you can what steps you would like your employer to take to make things work for you. You may not get everything you want, but you won’t usually get what you don’t ask for.
- Include copies of any supporting evidence with your letter of grievance.
I am writing to raise a formal grievance.
I have epilepsy, and occasionally have to take time off for my condition or to have my medication adjusted. A colleague gave me a copy of an email sent on May 4th 2023 by Chris to Tom, Sonny and Zev, suggesting they hold a sweepstake on when I would next have time off.
When I spoke to my line manager, Joe Brown, about it he said it was just young blokes joking and I should relax about it.
My complaint is that this is disability discrimination. I would like an apology from Joe and action taken in respect of Chris.
I attach a copy of Chris’s email dated May 4th 2023.
Please let me know when we can meet to talk about my grievance. I would like to be accompanied at the meeting by Jenny.
If your grievance is to do with discrimination
You may be nervous about accusing people of discrimination in your complaint. But if this is the reason for your grievance, it is very important that you say so and that you spell out the type or types of discrimination you have suffered. This is because if you want to make an employment tribunal claim and you have not mentioned discrimination at the grievance stage, it is likely to be very difficult for you to bring it up later. This may reduce your chances of success at the tribunal.
Unfortunately, there is no alternative to putting your complaint in writing. This is what the process requires. If you don’t feel comfortable or very confident about doing this you may be able to get help. You might be able to get help from an advice agency. If you are a member of a union, they may help you. Or you could ask Acas if they can help you. See How to get advice for ideas about where to go for help. Or you could ask a friend or family member to help you - show them this guide.
Step 2 – Having a meeting to discuss your complaint
When your employer gets your letter, they should invite you to a meeting to discuss your complaint reasonably quickly. Often the grievance procedure will set a timetable for this meeting, such as within 5 or 10 working days of receiving your letter.
There may be a delay while your employer investigates what you have said, for example by talking to a colleague if you have made a complaint about them.
You must make every effort to attend the meeting. People often stall because it is stressful, but postponing the meeting can be more stressful. If you miss meetings, your employer is less likely to take you seriously. And if you end up going to an employment tribunal later, any compensation you get may be reduced.
Taking someone with you to the meeting
The law requires your employer to allow you to bring a colleague or trade union representative to the meeting. If you are going to do this, let your employer know in advance so they can make any necessary arrangements such as ensuring the colleague or trade union representative can attend.
You do not have a right to take anyone who isn’t from your workplace or trade union, for example a friend or partner. If you would prefer that (or have a strong reason for such a request, for example you need help with a disability) you will need to ask if it‘s okay.
If the person you have asked to come with you cannot attend the meeting, you have a right to move the meeting by up to 5 working days so that they can come.
Witnesses and evidence
Think about what you will need to prove the facts of your case (the law calls this ‘evidence’).
- If you have documents you want to use, find them and sort them into date order so that you can use them at the hearing.
- Check if your grievance procedure says that you need to provide copies to your employer in advance. If it does, then you need to do this.
- If there are documents you think are relevant and that only your employer has (for example, an occupational health report on you which you haven’t seen) ask your employer for a copy.
- If you want a colleague to be a witness, you should ask them, and get them to give you a short written witness statement. Tell your manager the names of any witnesses you want at the meeting so they can arrange for them to be released from work.
Taking notes at the meeting
It is a good idea to ask for a note-taker to be present. This is very helpful as it means there will be a proper record of the meeting. If your employer has a note-taker, before the meeting ask them to confirm that you will be given a copy.
If there isn’t a note taker, ask the person accompanying you to take notes. If you are alone, ask for a pause to make a note yourself.
During the meeting if you or your employer says something that you think is important, ask the note-taker to record that point.
You should be given a copy of the notes after the meeting. If you are not, make sure you ask for them. When you get the notes taken by a note taker, check them to make sure they are accurate as soon as possible. If you took a companion with you, you may also want to discuss the notes with them. Tell your employer about any inaccuracies quickly.
You can ask if you are allowed to record the meeting, but many employers will not agree. Generally, it is not a good idea to make a secret recording of the meeting. Although employment tribunals often do allow these recordings to be used - if your employer finds out, they might dismiss you for doing this.
Other top tips
- Before you go to the meeting, think about what you want to say, and how your employer might respond. Make a list of issues you want to cover, the questions you want to ask, and the outcome you are looking for.
- If you or the person accompanying you will need help because of a disability, ask your employer to arrange it.
- If English is not your first language and you sometimes have difficulty saying what you want to say or understanding things, consider asking your employer to arrange for an interpreter.
- Try not to panic or feel intimidated – it is your right to have your complaint heard.
- Try and stay calm.
At the grievance meeting
At the meeting, your employer should give you the opportunity to discuss your problem and to say how you want them to sort it out.
When they have heard what you have to say, they may end the meeting to give them time to investigate your complaint before meeting with you again.
After the meeting
Delays in the grievance process – employment tribunal time limit
Some grievances take a long time to deal with because they are complicated to investigate. Some take a long time because the employer is deliberately being slow. Whatever the reason, if you have a case that you could take to an employment tribunal, you must bear in mind the time limits for doing this.
The basic time limit for an employment tribunal case is 3 months less 1 day from the act you are complaining about. But you must use Acas’s Early Conciliation service first before you can start a claim in the employment tribunal. For more information about this, see Time limits and employment tribunals
If time passes and you are still waiting for your work’s grievance procedure to take its course and it looks like there’s a possibility you could miss the deadline, you must lodge your tribunal claim. You can’t afford to wait or delay. If you are in this position, you should talk to an experienced adviser at your union or local advice agency quickly.
You are responsible for staying within the time limit for making an employment tribunal claim.
After the meeting your employer should let you know what they have decided to do about your grievance in writing.
They should also tell you that you have a right to appeal if you are unhappy with their decision. If they don’t, check whether your procedure gives you a right of appeal.
They shouldn’t tell you their decision at the end of the meeting, as they should take time to think it over.
Your grievance procedure may set out a timetable for when they must let you know and they should give you their decision within this timescale. If they don’t, you should follow it up with them.
If they don’t give you a decision and yours is the type of grievance that could go to an employment tribunal, decide if you want to do this. Remember you need to stay within the time limits.
Step 3 – appeal
If you are not satisfied with the way your work has dealt with your problem, you can appeal.
If you think you may go to an employment tribunal it is advisable to appeal (as long as there is time). This way you can show that you have used all the internal processes available to you.
If you decide to appeal, you should tell your employer as soon as possible. You must do this in writing and within the deadline set in the grievance procedure. This is often 5 or 10 working days, but check.
You are responsible for staying within the time limit for an appeal. If you receive a response advising you of the decision in letter form only, make sure that you keep the letter advising you of the decision, and the envelope it came in. Make a note of when you actually received the letter (it is best to mark it on the letter or its envelope).This is because the time for an appeal will run from the date you received the decision, and sometimes the date on the letter is not the same as the date it was posted.
Do your best to get your appeal to your employer within the time limit or they may refuse to look at your appeal. If you have to miss the deadline, explain why it is late.
What to put in my appeal letter
Some employers have a two stage appeal process. The first stage is when you tell them you are going to appeal, and the second stage is when you tell them the reasons (the law calls this the ‘grounds’) for your appeal. If you are not certain whether your employer operates a two stage appeal process, it is important that you cover both points in your letter. So tell them that you are going to appeal, and set out all the reasons for your appeal.
Don’t just repeat what was in your original grievance letter. You need to respond to the decision they have made. Highlight what you think the decision-maker overlooked, or didn’t take enough account of, or didn’t understand about your complaint.
You may need to send your employer any additional paperwork that supports your case. Again, there is probably a time limit in the grievance procedure for this.
Make sure you keep a dated copy of your letter of appeal.
Meeting to hear your appeal
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. In a large organisation it should be someone more senior than the person who heard your grievance, or it may be a panel of perhaps three people. The same rules apply as for the first meeting.
After the appeal meeting, your employer should give you their decision in writing. You are unlikely to have any further rights of appeal in your workplace after this.
After using the grievance procedure
If your problem isn’t solved by using your work's grievance procedure, you may want to take it to an employment tribunal. But employment tribunals can’t deal with all the different types of problems that grievance procedures cover. For more information, see Employment tribunals.
You don’t have to tell a future employer about a grievance you raised or about any claims made to an employment tribunal. If your former employer mentions them in a reference, this is likely to be post-termination unlawful victimisation if part of your grievance or employment tribunal claim involved unlawful discrimination.
If your new employer treats you less favourably or withdraws a job offer because they discover you have brought a tribunal claim or a grievance for unlawful discrimination, that would also be unlawful victimisation.
How to get free advice
On any employment issue
Acas - the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service offers free advice to employees, workers and employers via their helpline - 0300 123 1100 Monday to Friday, 8am-6pm. Text Relay: 18001 0300 123 1100. You can get helpline support in any language - just tell the person you talk to what language you speak. They also have helpful guides on their website.
Law Centres employ solicitors and other workers who specialise in helping people with employment, immigration, education, housing, community care, and benefit problems. Find a Law Centre near you on the Law Centre Network’s website
Citizens Advice can give advice about all areas of employment problems. help people resolve their legal, money and other problems by providing free information and advice. Find your local Citizens Advice by using the search on their homepage.
On employment issues linked to discrimination
The Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS) helpline can provide advice on issues relating to equality and human rights, across England, Scotland and Wales. If you think you have been discriminated against because of a protected characteristic, this is a good place to go. Telephone: 0808 800 0082 Textphone: 0808 800 0084. Open Monday to Friday 9am-7pm, Saturday 10am-2pm. Their website offers a translation into Welsh facility, video information about their services for British Sign Language (BSL) users and the facility to speak to an adviser in BSL or text chat.They also have lots of helpful information on their website.
The Disability Law Service provides free legal advice to people with disabilities and their carers about employment law. Call: 0207 791 9800 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. They are often very busy but they try to get back to you within 3-5 working days. They also have lots of helpful information on their website.
Mind provides legal information and general advice on mental health related law including discrimination at work. You can contact the Legal Line by calling 0300 466 6463 or emailing: email@example.com.
On employment issues connected with pregnancy or parental rights
Maternity Action offer advice and information to help you understand and use your rights and entitlements throughout your pregnancy, maternity leave and return to work. If you live or work in London call 0808 802 0057 on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 am to 1pm (closed Wednesday). If you live elsewhere in England and Wales call the National advice line on 0808 802 0029 on Mondays to Fridays, 10 am to 1pm. Calls to their advice lines are free from UK landlines and mobile phones and do not appear on itemised bills. You can also email them through the contact form on their website. They also have lots of helpful information on their website.
Working Families advises parents and carers about their employment rights including maternity and paternity leave, rights to time off in an emergency, parental leave and flexible working. You can call their Legal Helpline on 0300 012 0312 open weekdays 11am-2pm. Or contact them using the form on their website. They also have lots of helpful information on their website.
On serious wrong-doing at work/whistleblowing
Protect provides independent and confidential legal advice to workers who are worried about wrong-doing at work and about whether or how to make it public so that the wrong doing stops (this is often called ‘whistleblowing’). Call them on the advice line 020 3117 2520 or email them through the website. They can help you in other languages if you need. They also have lots of helpful information on their website.
For information about trade unions
Trade Union Congress
For information about trade unions, and how to find the right trade union for you, see: https://www.tuc.org.uk/
How to get good paid for advice
Some barristers take queries or cases direct from members of the public. They are called ‘public access’ barristers. You can search for a public access barrister who specialises in employment law on the Bar Council website.
For information about trade unions
Trade Union Congress
For information about trade unions, and how to find the right trade union for you, see: https://www.tuc.org.uk/
What does it mean?
The Code – this refers to the Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures. This sets out how employers should deal with complaints made by their staff. By law, your employer should deal with your problems in the way set out in the Code, and if they don't they may have to pay you more compensation if you win an employment tribunal claim.
Employment tribunal - the specialist court where employment disputes are decided.
Grievance - a concern, problem or complaint you have about your work.
Harassment – a form of discrimination. It involves unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal behaviour relating to one of the types of discrimination.
Protected characteristic - a particular personal characteristic or feature about you that the law protects from discrimination. The protected characteristics are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation.
Victimisation – is when you are treated badly at work because you have raised a grievance about discrimination or because you helped someone else to do so.