In their working life, employees do get dissatisfied with various aspects of working may be with the attitude of the manager, policy of the company, working conditions, or behaviour of colleagues. Employers try to ignore or suppress grievances. But they cannot be suppressed for long. Grievance acts as rust which corrodes the very fabric of organisation. An aggrieved employee is a potent source of indiscipline and bad working. According to Julius, a grievance is “any discontent or dissatisfaction, whether expressed or not, whether valid or not, arising out of anything connected with the company which an employee thinks, believes or, even feels to be unfair, unjust or inequitable.” 


To understand what a grievance is, you must clearly be able to distinguish between dissatisfaction, complaint and grievance. Torrington (1987) provides us with a useful categorisation in this regard:

Dissatisfaction: Anything disturbs an employee, whether or not the unrest is expressed in words.

Complaint: A spoken or written dissatisfaction brought to the attention of the supervisor or the shop steward.

Grievance: A complaint that has been formally presented to a management representative or to a union official.

In addition, there are other definitions of a grievance that distinguish it from the other two. Few such definitions are:

  • A grievance is a formal dispute between an employee and management on the conditions of employment. (Glueck, 1978)
  • Grievances are complaints that have been formally registered in accordance with the grievance procedure. (Jackson)
  • A grievance is any dissatisfaction or feeling of injustice in connection with one’s employment situation that is brought to the attention of the management (Beach 1980).

Therefore, you will see that a grievance is a formal and a relatively drastic step, compared to dissatisfactions and complains. However, instances where complaints turn into grievances are not common, since few employees will question their superior’s judgement. Further, many people do not initiate grievances because they fear negative consequence as a result of their attempt. 


If we analyse these definitions of grievance, some noticeable features emerge clearly:

  1. a) A grievance refers to any form of discontent or dissatisfaction with any aspect of the organisation.
  2. b) The dissatisfaction must arise out of employment and not due to personal or family problems.
  3. c) The discontent can arise out of real or imaginary reasons. When the employee feels that injustice has been done to him, he has a grievance. The reasons for such a feeling may be valid or invalid, legitimate or irrational, justifiable or ridiculous.
  4. d) The discontent may be voiced or unvoiced. But it must find expression in some form. However, discontent per se is not a grievance. Initially, the employee may complain orally or in writing. If this not looked into promptly, the employee feels a sense of lack of justice. Now the discontent grows and takes the shape of a grievance.
  5. e) Broadly speaking, thus, a grievance is traceable to perceived non-fulfillment of one’s expectations from the organisation.

A grievance may take anyone of the following forms:

a) Factual: A factual grievance arises when legitimate needs of employees remain unfulfilled, e.g., wage hike has been agreed but not implemented citing various reasons.

b) Imaginary: When an employee’s dissatisfaction is not because of any valid reason but because of a wrong perception, wrong attitude or wrong information he has. Such a situation may create an imaginary grievance. Though management is not at fault in such instances, still it has to clear the ‘fog’ immediately.

c) Disguised: An employee may have dissatisfaction for reasons that are unknown to himself. If he/she is under pressure from family, friends, relatives, neighbours, he/she may reach the work spot with a heavy heart. If a new recruit gets a new table and almirah this may become an eyesore to other employees who have not been treated likewise previously.


Grievances may occur for a number of reasons:

a) Economic: Wage fixation, overtime, bonus, wage revision, etc. Employees may feel that they are paid less when compared to others.

b) Work Environment: Poor physical conditions of workplace, tight production norms, defective tools and equipment, poor quality of materials, unfair rules, lack of recognition, etc.

c) Supervision: Relates to the attitudes of the supervisor towards the employee such as perceived notions of bias, favouritism, nepotism, caste affiliations, regional feelings, etc.

d) Work group: Employee is unable to adjust with his colleagues; suffers from feelings of neglect, victimisation and becomes an object of ridicule and humiliation, etc.

e) Miscellaneous: These include issues relating to certain violations in respect of promotions, safety methods, transfer, disciplinary rules, fines, granting leave, medical facilities, etc.

The following Table describes the classification and causes of grievances.

Classification and causes of Grivances

Jackson (p.5) traces the causes of grievances as arising from the following issues:

  • working environment e.g., light, space, heat.
  • use of equipment, e.g., tools that have not been properly maintained.
  • supervisory practices, e.g., workload allocation.
  • personality clashes and other inter-employee disputes (work-related or otherwise).
  • behaviour exhibited by managers or other employees, e.g. allocation of ‘perks’ such as Sunday overtime working, and harassment, victimisation, and bullying incidents.
  • refused requests, e.g., annual leave, shift changes.
  • problems with pay: e.g. late bonus, payments, adjustments to overtime pay perceived inequalities in treatment: e.g., claims for equal pay, appeals against performance related pay awards.
  • organisational change, e.g., the implementation of revised company policies or new working practices.

The authors stress that all these causes should be investigated to achieve the following twin objectives:

  • redress the grievances of the complainant.
  • initiate remedial steps to prevent recurrence of similar grievances in the future.

Different aspects of grievance are as follows:

1) Organisational aspects: Organisational structure, policy plans and procedure.

2) Informational aspects: Ignorance about company rules, regulations, promotion policies, career prospects, transferability etc.

3) Human aspects: A variety of reasons, the major ones being poor mental health and attention. 


Grievances, if they are not identified and redressed, may affect adversely the workers, managers and the organisation. The effects are:

1) On production include:

  • Low quality of production.
  • Low quality of production and productivity.
  • Increase in the wastage of material, spoilage/leakage of machinery.
  • Increase in the cost of production per unit.

2) On the employees:

  • Increases the rate of absenteeism and turnover.
  • Reduces the level of commitment, sincerity and punctuality.
  • Increases the incidence of accidents.
  • Reduces the level of employee morale.

3) On the managers:

  • Strains the superior-subordinate relations.
  • Increases the degree of supervision, control and follow up.
  • Increases in discipline cases.
  • Increase in unrest and thereby machinery to maintain industrial peace.

Beach also refers to several reasons why there should be a formal procedure to handle grievances:

  • All employee complaints and grievances are in actual practice not settled satisfactorily by the first level supervisor, due to lack of necessary human relations skills or authority to act.
  • It serves as a medium of upward communication, whereby the management becomes aware of employee frustrations, problems and expectations.
  • It operates like a pressure release valve on a steam boiler, providing the employees with an outlet to send out their frustrations, discontents and grips.
  • It also reduces the likelihood of arbitrary action by supervision, since the supervisors know that the employees are able to protest such behaviour and make their protests heard by higher manager.
  • The very fact that employees have a right to be heard and actually heard helps to improve morale.

Grievances can be uncovered in a number of ways. Gossip and grapevine offer vital clues about employee grievances. Ripe boxes, open door policies periodic interviews, exit surveys could also be undertaken to uncover the mystery surrounding grievances. These methods are discussed below:

a) Observation: A manager / supervisor can usually track the behaviours of people working under him. If a particular employee is not getting along with people, spoiling materials due to carelessness or recklessness, showing indifference to commands, reporting late for work or is remaining absent – the signals are fairly obvious. Since the supervisor is close to the scene of action, he can always find out such unusual behaviours and report promptly.

b) Grievance procedure: A systematic grievance procedure is best means to highlight employee dissatisfaction at various levels. Management, to this end, must encourage employees to use it whenever they have anything to say. In the absence of such a procedure, grievances pile up and burst up in violent forms at a future date. By that time things might have taken an ugly shape altogether, impairing cordial relations between labour and management. If management fails to induce employees to express their grievances, unions will take over and emerge as powerful bargaining representatives.

c) Gripe boxes: A gripe box may be kept at prominent locations in the factory for lodging anonymous complaints pertaining to any aspect relating to work. Since the complaint need not reveal his identity, he can express his feelings of injustice or discontent frankly and without any fear of victimisation.

d) Open door policy: This is a kind of walk-in-meeting with the manager when the employee can express his feelings openly about any work-related grievance. The manager can cross-check the details of the complaint through various means at his disposal.

e) Exit interview: Employees usually leave their current jobs due to dissatisfaction or better prospects outside. If the manager tries sincerely through an exit interview, he might be able to find out the real reasons why ‘X’ is leaving the organisation. To elicit valuable information, the manager must encourage the employee to give a correct picture so as to rectify the mistakes promptly. If the employee is not providing fearless answers, he may given a questionnaire to fill up and post the same after getting all his dues cleared from the organisation where he is currently employed.

f) Opinion surveys: Surveys may be conducted periodically to elicit the opinions of employees about the organisation and its policies. 


As already discussed, there are valid reasons to have the grievances processed through a machinery or a procedure. 

Objectives of a Grievance Handling Procedure

Jackson (2000) lays down the objectives of a grievance handling procedure as follows:

  • To enable the employee to air his/her grievance.
  • To clarify the nature of the grievance.
  • To investigate the reasons for dissatisfaction.
  • To obtain, where possible, a speedy resolution to the problem.
  • To take appropriate actions and ensure that promises are kept.
  • To inform the employee of his or her right to take the grievance to the next stage of the procedure, in the event of an unsuccessful resolution. 

The Benefits of a Grievance Handling Procedure

According to Jackson (2000), further benefits that will accrue to both the employer and employees are as follows:

  • It encourages employees to raise concerns without fear of reprisal.
  • It provides a fair and speedy means of dealing with complaints.
  • It prevents minor disagreements developing into more serious disputes.
  • It saves employers time and money as solutions are found for workplace problems. It helps to build an organisational climate based on openness and trust. 

The details of a grievance procedure/machinery may vary from organisation to organisation. Here, a four phase model (Figure 1) is suggested. The first and the last stages have universal relevance, irrespective of the differences in the procedures at the intermediate stages. The four stages of the machinery are briefly discussed here:

The level at which grievance occurs : The best opportunity to redress a grievance is to resolve it at the level at which it occurs. A worker’s grievance should be resolved by his immediate boss, the first line supervisor. The higher the document rises through the hierarchy, the more difficult it is to resolve. Bypassing the supervisor would erode his authority. When the process moves to a higher stage, the aggrieved employee and the supervisor concerned may shift their focus to save face by proving the other wrong. The substantive aspect of any of the grievances may thus be relegated and dysfunctional aspects come to the fore thus making it more difficult to settle the issue.

Grievances Procedure

In a unionised concern, the first stage of the procedure usually involves three people: the aggrieved employee, his immediate boss and the union representative in the shop/ department. It is possible to involve the union in laying down the framework of the grievance procedure and thereafter restrain union involvement in the actual process, at least in the first two stages. The choice depends on the top management attitude and orientation towards the dynamics of union-management relations.

Supervisory role needs to be strengthened, with appropriate training in problem solving skills, grievance handling and counselling so that he can do much in reducing the number of grievances that get passed to higher stages in the machinery.

Unrealistic policies and expectations and lack of commitment for equity and fairplay can cause problems in handling grievances at the lower level. Inadequate delegation of authority may also inhabit a supervisor’s effectiveness in handling grievances at this level.

Intermediate Stage : If the dispute is not redressed at the supervisor’s level, it will usually be referred to the head of the concerned department. It is important that line management assume prime responsibility for the settlement of a grievance. Any direct involvement by personnel department may upset balance in line-staff relations.

At the intermediate level, grievance can be settled with or without union involvement. Excessive reliance on supervisor at this stage can jeopardise the interests of the employee and affect the credibility of the procedure. 

Organisation Level: If a grievance is not settled at the intermediate level also, it will be referred to the top management. Usually, a person of a level not less than General Manager designated for the purpose will directly handle the issue. By now, the grievance may acquire some political importance and the top leadership of the union may also step in formally, if the procedure provides for it and informally, if the procedure prohibits it. At this level it is very difficult to reconcile the divergent interests. 

Third Party Mediation: If the grievance has not been settled bi-laterally within the organisation, it goes to a third party for mediation. It could be conciliation, arbitration or adjudication or the matter may even be referred to a labour court. At this stage, the parties concerned lose control over the way the grievance is settled. In case of mediation (conciliation or arbitration) the mediator has no authority to decide, but in case of labour court or an adjudicator, the decision will be binding on the parties, subject to statutory provisions for appeal to higher courts. 


At any stage of the grievance machinery, the dispute must be handled by some members of the management. In grievance redressal, responsibility lies largely with the management. And, as already discussed, grievances should be settled promptly at the first stage itself. The following steps will provide a measure of guidance to the manager dealing with grievances. 

Acknowledge Dissatisfaction: Managerial/supervisory attitude to grievances is important. They should focus attention on grievances, not turn away from them. Ignorance is not bliss, it is the bane of industrial conflict. Condescending attitude on the part of supervisors and managers would aggravate the problem. 

Define the Problem: Instead of trying to deal with a vague feeling of discontent, the problem should be defined properly. Sometime the wrong complaint is given. By effective listening, one can make sure that a true complaint is voiced.

Get the Facts: Facts should be separated from fiction. Though grievances result in hurt feelings, the effort should be to get the facts behind the feelings. There is need for a proper record of each grievance.

Analyse and Decide: Decisions on each of the grievances will have a precedent effect. While no time should be lost in dealing with them, it is no excuse to be slip-shod about it. Grievance settlements provide opportunities for managements to correct themselves, and thereby come closer to the employees. Horse-trading in grievance redressal due to union pressures may temporarily bring union leadership closer to the management, but it will surely alienate the workforce away from the management.

Follow up: Decisions taken must be followed up earnestly. They should be promptly communicated to the employee concerned. If a decision is favourable to the employee, his immediate boss should have the privilege of communicating the same.

Some of the common pitfalls that managements commit in grievance handling relate to (a) stopping the search for facts too soon; (b) expressing a management opinion before gathering full facts; (c) failing to maintain proper records; (d) arbitrary exercise of executive discretion; and (e) settling wrong grievances. 


Torrington & Hall refer to four key features of a grievance handling procedure, which are discussed below.

a) Fairness: Fairness is needed not only to be just but also to keep the procedure viable, if employees develop the belief that the procedure is only a sham, then its value will be lost, and other means sought to deal with the grievances. This also involves following the principles of natural justice, as in the case of a disciplinary procedure.

b) Facilities for representation: Representation, e.g., by a shop steward, can be of help to the individual employee who lacks the confidence or experience to take on the management single-handedly. However, there is also the risk that the presence of the representative produces a defensive management attitude, affected by a number of other issues on which the manager and shop steward may be at loggerheads.

c) Procedural steps: Steps should be limited to three. There is no value in having more just because there are more levels in the management hierarchy. This will only lengthen the time taken to deal with matter and will soon bring the procedure into disrepute.

d) Promptness: Promptness is needed to avoid the bitterness and frustration that can come from delay. When an employee ‘goes into procedure,’ it is like pulling the communication cord in the train. The action is not taken lightly and it is in anticipation of a swift resolution. Furthermore, the manager whose decision is being questioned will have a difficult time until the matter is settled. 


Every organisation should have a systematic grievance procedure in order to redress the grievances effectively. As explained above, unattended grievances may culminate in the form of violent conflicts later on. The grievance procedure, to be sound and effective should possess certain pre-requisites:

a) Conformity with statutory provisions: Due consideration must be given to the prevailing legislation while designing the grievance handling procedure.

b) Unambiguity: Every aspect of the grievance handling procedure should be clear and unambiguous. All employees should know whom to approach first when they have a grievance, whether the complaint should be written or oral, the maximum time in which the redressal is assured, etc. The redressing official should also know the limits within which he can take the required action.

c) Simplicity: The grievance handling procedure should be simple and short. If the procedure is complicated it may discourage employees and they may fail to make use of it in a proper manner.

d) Promptness: The grievance of the employee should be promptly handled and necessary action must be taken immediately. This is good for both the employee and management, because if the wrong doer is punished late, it may affect the morale of other employees as well.

e) Training: The supervisors and the union representatives should be properly trained in all aspects of grievance handling before hand or else it will complicate the problem.

f) Follow up: The Personnel Department should keep track of the effectiveness and the functioning of grievance handling procedure and make necessary changes to improve it from time to time.

Nair & Nair state that in the Indian context, certain guidelines were evolved in formulating grievance handling procedures in different types of organisations – small, big, unionised, non-unionised.

Comparison of Grievance redressal procedures

According to Nair & Nair, grievance handling procedures can be broadly classified as 3step, 4-step or 5-step. The details are tabulated in the following Table. One of the prominent features of the procedure suggested by Nair & Nair is the intervention of Grievance Committees in the 5-step procedure, which works in the Indian context. This committee consists of: in unionised context, two nominees each from the management and the union (1 union representative should be from the same department as the aggrieved employee); in a non unionised set up, two representatives from the management, representative in the ‘Works secretary/vice president of the ‘Works Committee.’

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