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Dealing with workplace disputes | 5 policies to have in your arsenal

Written by Hannah Copeland on 9 March 2022

The last two years have put tremendous pressure on the employer-employee relationship.

From vaccination to workplace safety measures, the pandemic has introduced plenty of new potential sources of conflict, and in many cases, employers’ COVID response and their handling of COVID-related issues continues to be a source of resentment. 

What’s more, employees now have an all-round greater awareness of their employer’s responsibilities, as well as their own rights. And with the Great Resignation tipping the balance of power in their favour, employees may feel emboldened to take work issues further than they would have dared to previously.

All of this points to one thing: a higher potential for workplace disputes. In fact, according to our Mind the Gap research, almost a third of employees wouldn’t hesitate to take legal action against their employer on a work issue. In fact, a third say they are more minded to do so as a result of their experience at work during the pandemic and what they have learnt about their rights during this time.

Conversely, 64% of employers would put off taking action against an employee. There are a number of reasons for this: a lack of employment law knowledge with the business (21%), an awareness that employees are now more clued up on their rights (33%), or simply a reluctance to take people to task given the difficulties of replacing staff in the current climate (12%). Whatever the reason, the right policies can make all the difference.

While not an out and out cure, without clear policies, businesses are devoid of any clear standards and expectations around employment topics. Indeed, disputes often occur because employees don’t understand something – their pay for instance – and policies help to establish a position of mutual understanding. Even if the dispute isn’t completely resolved, policies at least provide a pathway of communication and some common ground to start from.

With this in mind, here are five key policies all businesses should have in order to help them prevent and manage disputes effectively.

1. Grievance policy

All organisations should have a grievance policy and procedure, as this will help employees to understand the correct steps to follow when they have a concern, problem or complaint that they wish to raise with their employer which they feel they have been unable to resolve informally. 

Grievances might concern allegations of discrimination, health and safety issues, conflict, complaints about employment conditions or breach of policy.

Your grievance policy should explain:

  • Who to contact with a grievance;
  • That you will attempt to resolve the issue informally first;
  • That if informal attempts at dispute resolution fail, you will proceed to a grievance hearing;
  • Employees’ rights, including the right to be accompanied;
  • Timescales for each stage of the procedure; and
  • How employees can appeal the decision.

Grievances are often the precursor to claims, so a good grievance policy can mean the difference between a Tribunal and a successful resolution.

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2. Equality and diversity policy

Disputes are commonly raised around bullying and harassment, and issues of equality and fairness, especially in relation to employees with protected characteristics such as race, sex and disability. In order to show that equality and diversity are at the core of your business, it’s essential that you have a policy around it.

As well as keeping employees happy and motivated by describing how you aim to encourage diversity in your workplace, having an equality and diversity policy should help to prevent disputes or legal issues arising by demonstrating to employees that you take these matters seriously and are prepared to challenge any poor behaviours.

This is particularly important when you consider that 14% of employees surveyed as part of our Mind the Gap research identified a lack of consistency, fairness or equality in how employees are treated as a key motivator that would prompt them to lodge a complaint or bring legal action.

3. Pay and performance

Disputes over pay and performance are common in many workplaces, and these are often related issues, for example where employees’ performance determines their pay.

Having a pay policy will help to ensure equal pay is given for work of equal value by setting out how you apply certain pay to certain roles. This in turn will reduce the potential for complaints of unfairness and potentially even equal pay claims. A pay policy will also help you to communicate pay principles, such as when you will pay overtime and how certain bonuses are awarded, thereby preventing disputes arising out of misunderstanding.

As a common example, employees will often claim they are entitled to be paid a bonus after leaving the company. The employer might not want to pay the bonus but has nothing written down to clarify the terms of the bonus scheme and no pay guidelines to suggest what should happen in that situation. In scenarios like this, a written policy will help to quash these disputes and protect the employer’s position.

Additionally, ‘performance’ is commonly a matter for potential dispute because the definition of good performance is so subjective. An employee might think they are working hard and doing a great job, but their manager may think differently. This is why having a policy about how goals and objectives are set, and how you manage achievement against them, is important. It should also outline:

  • The key behaviors that should be demonstrated;
  • The way in which performance will be measured through the course of the year; and
  • The way in which underperformance will be dealt with so that your employees are clear about how they can expect to be managed if they are not meeting the required standards.

All of this will provide clarity and hopefully avoid unnecessary pay or performance-related disputes.

4. Disciplinary policy

disciplinary policy is one of an organisation’s tools for managing disputes, and employers must not be afraid to use this policy in the right circumstances – in other words, once all informal problem-solving avenues have been explored, or where performance or conduct warrants it.

Before using the the formal procedure, be proactive and initiate informal discussions if you believe a problem is brewing. Furthermore, be ready to step in and facilitate with employees individually and collectively before resorting to the use of disciplinary measures where conflict has escalated. Consider intervening quickly by tackling the problem head on, encouraging people to speak, and by being objective, open-minded and solution-focused.

Having a disciplinary policy will enable you to take action to rectify misconduct or incapability issues, which can be common areas for disputes, and it may also be used to address certain behaviour or conduct that has been uncovered during the dispute.

The policy should state what performance and behaviour might lead to disciplinary action and specify what action may be taken. It should also include the means through which an employee can appeal if they do not agree with the outcome.

5. COVID-19 policy

A lack of clear post-COVID policies also emerged amongst the top three factors that would prompt an employee to raise a complaint or bring legal action, according to our Mind the Gap report. Simply put, people want to know how the organisation will deal with issues such as homeworking, vaccination and self-isolation, and this is best done through a COVID-19 policy.

This is essentially a statement by you, the employer, setting out how you plan to handle such matters in the new working world. The aim is to provide clarity, manage expectations and set out rules or amend existing ones.

This will inevitably help to reduce the potential for disputes by making everyone aware of your stance on certain topics that might otherwise become contentious. It will also help to ensure issues are dealt with in a fair and consistent manner, further minimising the potential for complaints of uneven treatment.

This list is not exhaustive, and it’s extremely valuable to have policies around all aspects of the employment relationship.

After all, the number one factor that would prompt employees to bring a complaint according to our research? A lack of communication. The more employees understand the better; if things are communicated to them through policies and other means, the less likely you will be to end up with a dispute.

And, if disputes do occur, you’ll be in a better position to quash them by pointing to your policies as a first line of defence.

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At WorkNest, we help employers to nip workforce issues in the bud before they escalate into time-consuming grievances and costly Tribunal claims. 

Our personalised, fixed-fee Employment Law and HR service gives you access to unlimited advice and support from your own small team of experts, who will help you to develop your policies and apply them evenly and fairly in the event of a dispute. And, should a claim arise, we can be there to provide specialist litigation support throughout the process to maximise your prospects of success.

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