Handling workplace problems

It can be difficult to raise personal complaints or difficulties in the workplace. This is particularly true if the issue is something which you see as unfair, discriminatory or unjustified.

There are different ways to approach the problem, depending on the size of the organisation, the personalities involved, and how confident you feel in raising your complaint.

Your supervisor or manager is usually the first person to talk to. There may also be human resources personnel, health and safety representatives, union representatives, or a more senior manager. Some organisations also provide confidential counselling services, which are often called ‘employee assistance programs’.

If these options do not help you to resolve your difficulty, then there are formal grievance procedures that may be undertaken.

Hot Tip: Grievance or disciplinary matter?

It is important to distinguish between grievance procedures and disciplinary matters. A grievance is a problem which can be resolved by negotiation and which does not generally involve misconduct by anyone. Disciplinary matters involve someone reporting the misconduct of another employee to management. Examples of disciplinary matters include theft, sexual harassment, and racial vilification. In disciplinary matters, the complainant should not be asked to compromise or negotiate an outcome with the other employee.

Grievance Procedures

A grievance procedure is a formal expression of dissatisfaction about a work situation, usually by an individual employee. However, it may also be initiated by a group of employees or by a union acting on their behalf.

The aim of the grievance procedure is to resolve problems as close to the source as possible, with steps for further discussions and resolution at higher levels of authority if necessary.

Good grievance procedures are one of the things which the Fair Work Act supports. However, the Act does not contain any specific provisions about grievance procedures. The Act does allow terms about grievance procedures to be included in collective agreements.

Modern awards and enterprise agreements are required to contain dispute settlement procedures, but these are different to grievance procedures. Dispute settlement procedures are concerned with industrial disputes between the employer and employees (or their union), relating only to the application of the modern award or collective agreement, or the National Employment Standard.

Hot Tip: Confidentiality

It can be much harder to resolve an issue if it has been the subject of discussion or gossip in the workplace. Any information relating to a grievance must be handled with strict confidentiality to maintain the integrity of the grievance process. Employees involved in a grievance should not discuss the matter at work.

Procedures should be based on the principles of natural justice, including that:

  • complaints must be fully described by the aggrieved person;
  • the person(s) against whom the complaint is made should be given the full details of any allegation(s) against them;
  • both parties should have the opportunity to put their side of the story before resolution is attempted; and
  • proceedings should be conducted honestly, fairly, without bias, and as promptly as is fair and reasonable.

Many organisations have a written procedure to resolve workplace problems and difficulties. These are often set out in an organisation’s Policy and Procedures Manual, or the applicable award or collective agreement.


Example of a grievance procedure

First, consider whether it would be appropriate to raise the issue with the person who is causing the problem. If you feel comfortable doing so, try to let the other person know that their conduct is causing a problem for you.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, or if it does not work, then the procedure set out below is a basic set of steps for solving a workplace grievance.

Step 1

Approach your direct supervisor. Your supervisor should:

  • ask you about the problem and what steps you have taken to deal with the situation;
  • listen with an open mind;
  • gather all relevant facts; and
  • act promptly and fairly.

At this stage, the problem might be resolved by your manager taking some action. If so, then your manager should follow up with you to ensure that the corrective action has been taken and the cause of the grievance properly addressed.

If you don’t want to talk to your direct supervisor because the grievance concerns them, you can speak with someone else – either their manager or a Contact Officer.

Step 2

If the problem is not resolved, then you will need to raise the issue with more senior management. You will probably be asked to put the issue in writing at this stage. Your written complaint should include:

  • a detailed description of the problem and the steps which you have taken to deal with it;
  • your suggestion about what you would like management to do to investigate the grievance – this usually includes a meeting with you to discuss the details of your complaint; and
  • a description of what you would like to achieve as an outcome of the process (this is sometimes called the ‘remedy’).

Step 3

Someone senior within the organisation (such as a senior manager, or human resources officer) investigates the grievance to try to fully understand the problem and find a solution. Discussions may be held with the employees involved, and their manager(s).

The goal of the grievance-handling process is to reach an agreement by the parties to resolve the issues causing concern or conflict. Negotiating such an agreement may require both parties to make compromises, and will not always result in a win/win outcome.

Step 4

If the issue cannot be resolved internally, then you may be able to make a complaint to an external body, not related to the employer. Whether you can do this, and which body to complain to, will depend on what kind of issue it is. If you are not sure whether you can make an external complaint, you can contact your union, or your local community legal centre.