Grievance and conflict resolution in the workplace

17 May 2022

Workplace investigations can be time-consuming and costly for businesses, especially if the grievance could have been resolved by an informal approach.

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Many businesses struggle to identify which grievances warrant an investigation and which can be resolved informally through a discussion or mediation. However, where the grievance is more serious (for example, if proven it presents a risk to safety) it will generally be appropriate for the grievance to be formally investigated.

Mechanisms to resolve complaints

A business can resolve a complaint in multiple ways. Generally there are two approaches: a formal and informal complaint procedure. An informal procedure has an emphasis on resolution, maintaining relationships and resolving the complaint quickly. This mechanism can be used for less serious complaints, involving all or some of the following steps:

  • The complainant speaks to the individual directly (where comfortable to do so)
  • The relevant manager has an informal discussion to settle the concerns
  • A mediation occurs with an individual from within the business, or an external mediator.

Where there are two employees that have concerns about each other, or are not working productively together, a mediation may be the best solution. Where the business involves an external mediator, it will still involve cost but may be a significant time and resource saver. Mediations are less formal and focus more on retaining relationships between the participants, whereas a formal investigation is more about determining ‘right vs wrong’. The Victorian Chamber has trained and experienced mediators that can be involved to assist parties reach an agreeable resolution.

Investigation or informal procedure

An investigation procedure should only be used for more serious grievances, especially where the business has a duty of care (such as the duty to eliminate sexual harassment or the duty to provide a safe workplace). An informal grievance process should be used where a minor grievance or an interpersonal conflict has been raised, which can be address through a conversation or mediation. An informal process involves less paperwork and documentation. There will likely be no disciplinary outcome at the end of the process but more of a sign-off that everything has been covered and the parties understand expectations.

When a business undertakes an investigation, it is crucial the correct procedure is followed to ensure procedural fairness and the integrity of any findings. The business should ensure everything – including the complaint, records of interview and allegations – is well documented and signed off by the relevant parties.

The allegations should be written clearly and plainly, contain non-emotive language and outline the specifics of the allegations with the relevant dates and times. The investigator must not side with either party during the investigation process nor make any comment in the written report. The investigator needs to stick to the facts and weight of the evidence. They must also not make a decision on any disciplinary action, as this needs to be dealt with by the relevant manager or the human resources professional.

A business should never have to ‘investigate’ an employee’s performance – this should be managed at the time and through a performance management plan.

How we can help

For more information, read about the most common avoidable mistakes during workplace investigations here.

If you are grappling with a grievance, in need of a mediator or investigator, or looking for some advice on the necessity of an investigation, call the Workplace Relations Advice line on (03) 8662 5222. Our team of expert workplace relations advisors and consultants are on hand to help.

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