HR Case Studies
The Grievance Icebergs
When the phone rings and the anxious voice on the other end of the phone asks, if we have experience in assisting with grievances, I know that this is usually the start of a journey rather than a short piece of advice. Over the past couple of years we have been involved in a number of cases in professional services organisations which have some interesting lessons. A common theme is that what is initially presented has hidden depths and complexities. The details of these are confidential but there are some learning lessons which are worth sharing.
The following four case studies are based on work that we have done and demonstrate the need to understand the particular business, the context in which it works and the challenges the organisations can face and can overcome.
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The Grievance Icebergs
When the phone rings and the anxious voice on the other end of the phone asks, if we have experience in assisting with grievances, I know that this is usually the start of a journey rather than a short piece of advice. Over the past couple of years we have been involved in a number of cases which have some interesting lessons. A common theme is that what is initially presented has hidden depths and complexities. The details of these are confidential but there are some learning lessons which are worth sharing.
1. Stick to the agreed process
I was asked to review a grievance process which had resulted in an appeal. A grievance had been lodged against a senior manager by 5 employees for bullying and harassment some 10 months previously and nobody was happy. I undertook to review the sequence of events, the evidence and unravel what had transpired. Needless to say that with the passage of time evidence had got “lost”, memories were fading and key people had left the organisation. Decision makers had tried to make the situation “go away” and as a result had entrenched individual and collective positions. The situation was untenable.
The lessons that needed to be learnt were
- Good governance and robust leadership is essential for all organisations. In this case the board could not agree on how to address the issue or be able to be sufficiently impartial and manage a robust process. They did not stick to the process or their roles within the process.
- Deal with these difficult matters promptly. Delays lead to frustration, dilution of evidence, and lack of accountability. The review also revealed that the grievances were brought as a last resort because previous issues has not been dealt with and had festered and grown.
- Initial investigation was not thorough and assumptions and conclusions were drawn without due consideration. The process was fundamentally flawed from the start.
In the end the organisation was broken beyond repair and key services had to be withdrawn. Sad outcome for the community it was intended to service.
2. Culture is ingrained and cannot be ignored
From the start I knew this investigation would be challenging. The initial grievance letter had 28 signatures and lead to over 55 witness statements each with a very similar tale to tell. The complaints rested on the manner in which the two leaders of this organisation had set about changing the culture of the organisation. The evidence in itself could appear quite petty and a matter of personal perspective but when collated and corroborated it painted a picture of an unhappy workplace with professionals undervalued and stressed. The cultural values of the organisation which meant much too many were being disregarded and this meant a great deal to a considerable number of employees. So much so that they got together and raised a collective grievance and this could not be ignored by the Board.
The lessons from this experience
- The process of investigation can be cathartic. Giving people the opportunity to talk about and share their concerns can be very revealing. Investigation is not necessarily a negative experience
- Early signs of discontent should not be ignored. It was a change in the attitude of the board that lead to the raising of the grievance and the board then recognised that earlier signs had not been given sufficient credence.
- Values, traditions and culture are very important to people and change should hold onto the positives and what matters
3. The truth often Hurts
The third and last example started with a simple telephone call and what looked like a limited number of investigation meetings, ended up with a long list of witnesses and some very revealing evidence. The protagonist was adamant about his innocence and his supporter had a lengthy tribute to his worthiness and competence. However when faced with hard evidence of misconduct and inappropriate behaviour, which was not revealed as part of the initial complaint but uncovered as a result of the investigation, it was hard to come back from the evidence. They very quickly retreated.
- It is never as it seems – the initial and early complaint usually the tip of the iceberg and it is what is below the surface that has caused the real damage.
An investigation into a grievance can be a fascinating journey and insight into life at work and lives at work. Our approach is to find out as much as we can, to take people with us on the journey and to find a way through the obstacles. That can take time and depends on co operation at all levels.
New employment opportunities
In our experience this is a sector that is not shrinking but one which is actively recruiting for technical and business support professionals. The market has opened up and where previously the dearth of good candidates caused by above market rates paid by some employers to IT contractors, is now producing some interesting prospects for employers seeking to employ software developers.
We have worked closely with companies who operate in niche markets andare reliant on competent software developers who can transfer their technical skills to their particular application. The direct approach through advertisement, sifting and managing the selection process has delivered very successful candidates to the employer on a lesser cost than the agency route and saved much of the management time in identifying the right cultural fit as well as the technical expertise.
Seeing the process through
We have then followed through the recruitment process with confirming terms and conditions, employment related induction and review of probation period before permanent employment is confirmed between the two parties.
Oil & Gas offshore services
The Oil and Gas industry in the UK provides employment for 380,000 people and it is expected that the new discoveries and developments will continue for the next 25 years.
Specific employment requirements
There are a large number of SME companies who provide specialist services to the multi nationals who dominate in this sector. These companies have specific employment requirements which they have to meet to remain productive and to be a preferred supplier to the oil and gas giants – upon whom they depend.
Typically employees are:
- Away from home sometimes for quite extended periods of time with irregular working patterns and disrupted home lives
- Travel to and from distant foreign destinations
- Facing testing working conditions which have health and safety considerations
- Must meet the rules and regulations of the client
- Have specialist skills which have been developed over a period of time.
Our work with companies in this field has:
- Developed and consulted on key terms and conditions which allow for the nature of the work in particular how annual leave is managed
- Engaged in consultation framework to allow all employees to be represented on a works council – so that their views could be considered even when they are offshore
- Implemented specific policies which are required by clients, for example substance misuse policies which have to be consulted, implemented and monitored offshore and onshore
- Raised the awareness of training and development for all employees to ensure that there is a succession of key skills and recognition of expert skills through accreditation
- Supported with recruitment for short term and longer term contracts to enhance the profile of the shore based teams and the offshore technical teams. This has eased constraints on the supply of resources at critical points.
These employment related measures have clarified the relationship between technicians and management; has allowed views and opinions to be expressed constructively and for the business to have the confidence to pitch and deliver to the clients’ requirements.
Not for Profit
Typically "not for profit" or third sector organisations operate in a niche market delivering services or support to a defined group of the community.
Those managing the organisation are usually attracted to the aims and objectives of the organisation and may have specialist skills and knowledge which is related to the delivery of the service. Therefore, in some cases, they may not have had a strong commercial or management experience which can present significant challenges when faced with difficult employment related issues. This is where we can help.
In one particular case we managed, a member of staff raised a grievance alleging unfair treatment on return to work after an extended absence. The issues surrounding the grievance were complex and would not go away. The executive director came to us, looking for a strategy to address the original grievance and the related issues; a support mechanism to manage any statutory processes which may be invoked and some additional resources at a very difficult time.
We were able to investigate the original grievances informally to identify some of the critical issues, formulate a plan to address those, support the management team to execute the plan and provide the appropriate level of advice, administrative and management support for a successful outcome to be reached. It was a difficult and emotional process but uncovering key evidence allowed a restructure of a management team which eventually lead to the rebuilding of trust between service providers and service users.