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| 3 minutes read

The Future of Work: Is the Disciplinary and Grievance Process fit for purpose?

There has much that has changed in the last few years not only about how we work but who we are at work.  The global pandemic has forced us to open a window into our homes and our lives.  The new normal is not just a question of whether we work from home or in the office.  It goes beyond that.  We are more interested and aware of our colleagues lives beyond work, their mental health, their family challenges, their neurodiversities.  Moreover, we have increased knowledge, skills and self awareness that allow those conversations to be meaningful, useful and creative.  In short, there is an acknowledgement that human beings are complex and our complexities are accepted, explored and even celebrated.

As such, it may be time to take a fresh look at the structures and systems we use to address and resolve issues at work and ensure that they are fit for purpose. 

The grievance and disciplinary process has, for years, been a valuable mechanism to address behaviour at work and there is no doubt that it is critical in any organisation.  However, it contains inherent challenges that, without adaptation, risk escalating the resolution of any dispute.

The biggest challenge is the psychological contract that is created between the employer and employee just by evoking the name "grievance and disciplinary process".  The name assumes that we are going to be aggrieved (angry, upset, wanting retribution) or disciplined (told off).  It assumes that there is an absolute right or wrong and, very quickly, creates a dynamic of blame and shame.  This is not to say that in some cases people may be right and in others they may be wrong.  However, the shades of grey when dealing with people issues are more common and the disciplinary and grievance process can serve as a blunt tool. The challenge is that raising a grievance or bringing disciplinary action can shut down the conversation at exactly the time that the conversation needs to be opened up. 

So what is the solution?  Clearly the process serves an important purpose so the idea is not to do with it altogether.  However, what is needed is a mechanism that can change the psycological contract between the employer and employee to one that enables each party to think about early resolution and take responsibility for their part in that resolution.  Even changing the name of the grievance and disciplinary process to "Early Resolution Scheme" or "Early Resolution Framework" enables that to happen.  

It is not just a question either of slotting mediation into the process.  I am, of course, an ardent advocate of mediation, having seen the benefits on the individuals involved of going through the process and the high levels of success in terms of business and relationship continuity it delivers. However, requiring mediation for the sake of it is not always the solution.  As well as that, the potential danger when the mediation process is too entrenched in procedures is that it becomes just another procedure.

What is needed is something slightly more subtle, namely a mediated approach to workplace conflict.  This includes access mediation being a key aspect of any process or set of solutions that an organsiation has.  But, more importantly, touchpoints whereby individuals can, more easily, raise their concerns, formally or informally, for resolution without compromising their opportunity for redress at a later stage.

There is no doubt that these changes will take time and require, eventually, some sort of look at the ACAS code but there is much organisations can do in the meantime.  Building the capacity for leaders and managers to deal with early stage conflict is one thing.  In fact, the ACAS report on the Cost of Conflict in 2021 said that ‘Conflict competence’ is an essential ingredient in good management and it has a positive impact on organisational effectiveness and performance."  

In any event, building an organisational culture where mediation is a viable option and where capacity to have more transparent conversations is built will be key to the future of work and, critically, engaged retained employees.  

"Close to 10 million people experience conflict at work each year, with more than half reporting stress, anxiety or depression as a result." ACAS report on Cost of Conflict 2021