Workplace conflict accounts for nearly half of all grievances, according to WorkNest survey
Written on 9 October 2023
Grievances derive from an employee’s dissatisfaction with some element of their employment, be it compensation, working conditions, or some other concern. In this sense, the scope of what may prompt a grievance is broad.
However, research recently conducted by WorkNest has shed light on the common causes of workplace grievances, with conflict emerging as the primary catalyst for these formal complaints.
Indeed, our survey of 355 UK employers found that almost half (47%) of all grievances stem from strained interpersonal relationships with colleagues, making conflict a bigger trigger for grievances than dissatisfaction regarding pay (9%), work life balance (9%) and working arrangements, including being denied flexible working (5%).
Sharon Gibson, Senior HR Consultant at WorkNest, says: “While it might not shock employers to learn that conflict is the leading cause of grievances, the fact that nearly 50% of all grievances involve these sorts of disputes is significant and speaks to the importance of interpersonal dynamics within the workplace. Workplace conflicts are often fuelled by differences in communication styles, broken relationships, backlashes from formal process, and managers not fully understanding the remit of their role – if these issues aren’t resolved, they can not only escalate into formal grievances but may also have wider repercussions on team dynamics and overall productivity. The findings therefore underscore the importance of proactive conflict resolution and consistency in line management of others within the team.
The role of managers
Breaking it down, 30% of grievances specifically concerned conflicts between an employee and their line manager. In 20% of cases, the employee initiated the grievance, while in 10% of cases, it was the manager who lodged the complaint. Additionally, 17% of grievances involved conflict between two or more employees.
Toyah Marshall, Principal Employment Law Adviser at WorkNest, comments: “Grievances are typically perceived as a mechanism for employees to raise complaints and concerns, so it’s interesting and somewhat unexpected to learn that line managers are employing this process to address issues with members of their own teams. One might wonder what actions the manager took prior to filing a grievance, as the conventional expectation is for managers to address such issues directly under the relevant disciplinary or capability procedures.”
Sharon says there could be several reasons why managers might choose to raise grievances against employees rather than addressing issues directly. She speculates: “Some workplace conflicts or issues may be particularly complex or legally sensitive, prompting managers to formalise the process to ensure proper documentation and compliance. It’s also possible that informal conflict resolution attempts have failed, or that the company has specific policies in place that require formal grievance procedures to be followed in certain situations, even if the manager has attempted informal resolution. It could also point to a lack of confidence, particularly if the manager has risen through the ranks and hasn’t had the proper training in dealing with people management matters. However, where the issue relates to an employee’s behaviour or conduct, this should be dealt with through a disciplinary procedure and not by raising a grievance against the employee.”
Further highlighting this issue, when asked about their main frustrations regarding employee grievances, 23% of employers and HR professionals cited line managers failing to handle issues informally as their biggest bugbear. Sharon says: “Whether it’s the manager bringing the grievance or the employee filing one against the manager, it’s important that managers proactively address conflict within their teams as soon as it arises. It is extremely important that managers are responsible for their teams and do not rely on HR to handle these matters.”
Sharon Gibson, Senior HR Consultant
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Becoming a bigger issue
Worryingly, the research also uncovered that over a third (37%) of employers have observed a rise in grievances over the past 12 months. When asked what factors they believe are behind this recent increase in formal complaints, 38% put it down to employees being less tolerant, with factors like mental health and stress (24%) and organisational change (24%) also suspected to have played a role.
Sharon says: “There are several reasons why people may have become less tolerant of each other in recent times. In fact, it’s likely that these three biggest reasons employers have identified are all symptomatic of the same issue.
She explains: “Factors such as company changes, increased workload pressures and personal issues, all of which may be being driven by external factors such as the cost of living crisis, can all contribute to higher levels of stress, in turn lowering people’s patience and tolerance levels. As a result of shorter tempers and less understanding, gripes that may have been shrugged off previously now escalate into formal complaints, as these issues take on increased significance in the current climate.”
Sharon Gibson, Senior HR Consultant
What can organisations do?
Ultimately, the findings underscore the importance of early intervention in order to reduce the risk of formal grievances arising from interpersonal disputes and improve working relationships.
Toyah says: “Grievances can incur significant costs for organisations, both in terms of time and resources, particularly if they lead to appeals or provoke counter-grievances. It’s therefore essential to equip managers with effective conflict resolution skills so that they are empowered to nip issues in the bud promptly and informally, before a grievance emerges.
“Additionally, investing in colleague engagement, eliminating stressors that may lead to irritability toward coworkers, and establishing robust check-in systems between managers and employees will all help to curtail conflict-related complaints, leading to an altogether more harmonious and productive workplace.”
Quash conflict confidently with WorkNest
If you are currently grappling with a conflict situation in your workplace and would like expert support, WorkNest offers a range of solutions to help you effectively manage and resolve these challenging situations.
Our fixed-fee service gives you access to unlimited advice from Employment Law and HR professionals, who will help you to consider your options and identify compliant and commercial ways forward. They will guide you through any grievance, disciplinary or dismissal process if necessary and draft any correspondence or documentation you require along the way.
- Employee engagement tools to help you proactively identify and address problems early.
- Conducting hearings, investigations and appeals on your behalf to ensure a fair process.
- Outsourced HR Manager support to alleviate the burden of HR issues on senior managers.
- Training and eLearning on a range of conflict-related topics to equip managers and HR professionals to handle these matters more confidently in future.
To discuss your specific situation and requirements with our team, call us on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.