An unhappy shopfloor worker means unhappy customers, so retailers must sort out grievances as soon as possible. The legal process in place does not make this easy, but changes are afoot, as Liz Morrell reports

Managing staff is never an easy task, but the very nature of a retail business makes it crucial that good relations are maintained. Retailers rely on their front-line staff to be the face of their brand. If those staff have a grievance, it can very quickly become evident to the customer and have an impact on service and sales.

Grievances can be wide ranging. Tesco employee relations manager Lesley Scriven says they fall into one of the following categories: terms and conditions, dignity at work, health and safety or general.

First and foremost, retailers must be aware of what constitutes a grievance and their legal responsibilities for dealing with them, and know that their managers share this knowledge. As Joanne Pitts, employment law consultant with HR specialist Croner Consultancy, points out: “It doesn’t always come in with a title on the top saying ‘I am raising a grievance’.” Russell & Bromley HR director Ann Friday says that, as soon as someone is complaining, it should be treated as a grievance.

The introduction of a statutory three-step process for dealing with grievances in 2004 should have made it a simple process (see box opposite). In reality, says Pinsent Masons senior associate Tom Potbury, the changes have not worked and will be repealed in 2009. “The concept of grievances and grievance procedures will still exist, but at the moment there is quite a rigid requirement for how grievances are dealt with and that has proved unwieldy,” he says.

To date, however, there is little word on exactly what such changes are likely to encompass – although retailers have a number of ideas on what they would like to see in place of the existing system. Most have an additional first step within their grievance procedures that encourages staff and managers to try to sort out grievances informally first. This not only saves the time and expense required by the formal three-step process, but also ensures that complaints are not allowed to fester.

Lisa Bedford, HR director for the boutique brands of the Mosaic Group – Coast, Karen Millen and Whistles – says the retailer’s broad policy is to resolve things informally wherever possible. “If we can get two people to have a conversation, that’s the best way,” she says.

Friday agrees. “We have a policy of trying to nip things in the bud. All our managers are trained to look out for signs of disquiet – we train them vigorously on that to try to avoid the official grievance,” she says.

Audrey Williams, partner at law firm Eversheds, believes the present system is too technical. “People are finding that it’s encouraging staff to put grievances into writing rather than having informal discussions first,” she says. This has also driven compensation-chasing. “It has become a step to a tribunal claim,” she adds.

Friday believes making informal discussions a legal first step would improve the process, because it would place responsibility on both parties. “At the moment, the onus is on management. The time has come for employees to have responsibility too,” she says.

Williams believes this approach works better in the retail environment. “The culture tends to be less formal, so informal discussions and chatting things through sits more comfortably,” she says.

A mediation or conciliatory service would also work well, suggests Potbury. “Abroad, there are alternatives, such as representatives of a reconciliation service going in to talk to both parties. What we have here very quickly becomes antagonistic, legalistic and drawn out,” he says. Bedford agrees. “Mediation is something that could be explored. That can be really helpful,” she says.

This is the role of national body ACAS. “Mediation is something ACAS does get involved in. We would step in to work with those parties and go in with no preconceptions, to look at the facts,” says ACAS helpline knowledge manager Sue Terry. She says the service is particularly useful for smaller retailers, which may not have the HR back-up to do it themselves.

ACAS also has a statutory duty for conciliation if a case is heading to an employment tribunal, but it can only get involved if both parties agree.

Employee forums are another useful tool – something Boots already has in place. It arranges People Listening Forums every quarter, during which team members can raise any suggestions or ideas to improve the working environment or business. “People often find this is a great way of resolving simple, everyday frustrations,” says a spokeswoman.

Scriven says that Tesco would welcome any procedure that helps both parties focus on practical ways to work together to resolve issues, with time being of the essence. “Like a lot of other companies, we have noticed an increase in the administrative requirements of the statutory process; therefore we would like to see less bureaucracy to give way to a more practical and conciliatory approach,” she says.

Williams would like to see best practice guidance. “Before we had the statutory regulations, the best practice guidance came from Acas – and that worked,” she says.

Crucially, store managers must be trained in grievance management. Some will simply pass on complaints to HR departments – either through laziness or fear of getting it wrong – but Potbury says they must take responsibility. “Employees quite often think that HR exists to deal with grievances, but that isn’t really what it is meant to do. Yes, you may need the expertise of the HR department to explain the grievance process but, in some cases, people get carried away with the notion that HR can solve it with a magic wand,” he says.

Most retailers ensure that recognising and dealing with grievances is a skill their store managers develop. Bedford says that all staff in Mosaic’s boutique brands receive training. “We also have an employee relations helpline that they can phone, and there are template letters and the policy on the intranet,” she adds.

Scriven says that all Tesco’s managers go through its Solving Problems at Work training programme and deal with grievances locally. “If needed, they have support from their store or group personnel manager.”

The same is true at Boots. It ensures its managers have experienced employee relations managers and can access both a centralised helpline known as People Point and online policies and procedures to support them.

But the nature of retailing can make dealing with grievances a tough job – especially in smaller-unit retailing, where there may not be sufficient staff to deal with a formal grievance. “It may be that you need three rungs of management,” advises Pitts. “At smaller sites, it may also be hard for the manager to step back and look at the case objectively.” But, while many retailers can draw on staff in neighbouring stores, for those spread further apart, it can be a challenge.

A large part of dealing with grievances is about having intuitive managers who can pick up on any negative feeling and nip problems in the bud. Brushing such issues aside may not only lead to legal repercussions – compensation can increase by as much as 50 per cent at subsequent employment tribunals if either party has failed to follow the legal grievance procedure – but bad feeling, too. Resolving them swiftly and fairly can only help bring about a happy workforce, and in turn, a more successful retailer.

What is the statutory grievance procedure?

The procedure has three steps:

1)The employee informs the employer of the grievance in writing

2)The two sides meet to discuss the grievance

3)An appeal is held, if requested

If an employee wishes to use a grievance as the basis of a complaint to an employment tribunal, they must first complete step 1. Employment tribunals may adjust any award of compensation by between 10 and 50 per cent for failure by either party to follow the relevant steps of the statutory procedure.

Source: Acas