Q&A: Workforce/HR/Employment law

Handling grievances: everything your GP practice needs to know

Employment lawyer Ian Pace provides an essential guide on how to manage the process when a member of staff raises a work complaint or problem

For a busy GP practice, dealing with staff grievances can be time-consuming, stressful and strain working relationships – particularly if practices don’t have a clear, transparent process in place. 

Here, we review some of the key questions that might arise for partners and practice managers handling these issues, and the core principles that will help achieve the best possible outcomes.  

What is a grievance? 

It’s a concern, complaint or problem an employee raises about any work-related issue whether that be another member of staff, workload, their manager, working conditions, unfair treatment and more. 

Do we always need to follow a formal framework, and who should lead the process? 

When a staff member raises an issue, the first thing to do is to see whether it can be resolved through an informal conversation.  

In our experience, this can often fix the problem at the outset. But it shouldn’t be the only option staff are given – practices ultimately need to let them choose, without any pressure, whether they’d prefer to pursue a formal process. 

Who should lead the process depends on the seriousness and complexity of the issue. 

In most cases, a practice manager or someone from a practice’s HR function – if they have one – should investigate.  

However, if the complaint is serious, for example, involving discrimination or bullying, then a practice partner might be a better option.  

It’s critical that whoever leads has no obvious conflicts of interest. If no one in the practice is suitable, it may be appropriate to appoint an external investigator whose independence can be guaranteed.  

What timeline should the process follow? 

Although there is no legal timeline, any grievance needs to be dealt with promptly.  

As time passes, memories may fade or documented information may no longer be available, hampering a practice’s ability to investigate and find a solution.  

Undue delay can also demotivate staff to either engage in the process or to raise their own concerns in the future, the very opposite of what a good system should achieve.  

We need to investigate an issue – what should this involve? 

The steps in a formal investigation will depend on the nature of the allegations but could involve everything from interviewing witnesses to accessing IT systems and collating documentary evidence.  

While all of this needs to be done as efficiently as possible so a resolution can swiftly be reached, practices must be diligent and thorough. 

If at any point in the investigation a new issue is raised, or someone brings any new evidence to light, it is crucial that these are given due consideration, even if that means delays to the process.  

What happens if a complaint is made as part of a disciplinary process?   

Disciplinary and grievance processes can be closely entwined. What’s the difference between the two? A disciplinary procedure addresses an employee’s conduct or performance. A grievance procedure is used to deal with a problem, complaint or concern that a member of staff raises about any work-related issue. 

In general, there is no requirement to halt disciplinary proceedings because the person involved has raised an issue. This will only likely be appropriate where what they’ve raised is very serious.  

If a member of staff complains about the disciplinary process itself, this is usually best addressed as part of the hearing or appeal. Where a grievance is raised after the fact relating to a point of discipline that has already been dealt with, the practice is entitled to explain that they won’t give this separate attention. 

If an issue is raised during proceedings that is unconnected to the disciplinary case, practices can choose whether to deal with it as part of the process, or separately after.  

Which route to take will depend on how relevant the grievance is to the disciplinary issue at hand.    

How should malicious complaints be managed? 

It is essential that the integrity of a grievance process is protected and the filing of malicious complaints could potentially be treated as misconduct.  

However, before pursuing this path, a practice needs to be sure that the issue or complaint has been raised in ‘bad faith’.  

If person raising the issue is simply mistaken or misguided, they shouldn’t be subject to disciplinary proceedings.  

However, determining this, and deciding on appropriate next steps, can be complex – partners and practice managers should seek expert legal advice if they are unsure.  

What are the risks of ignoring a grievance?  

Not giving grievances their due time and consideration can lead to a number of issues for a practice.  

The primary risk is that the employee could resign and make a claim for constructive dismissal – a case where a member of staff resigns because their employer has seriously breached their employment contract.  If they remain in employment, there could also be a risk that they claim that failure to address the complaint is discriminatory.  

Failure to address an issue that relates to health and safety or patient care issues, could, in the worst case, result in a report to a professional or regulatory body, or a whistleblowing claim in an employment tribunal.  

And, within the practice itself, ignoring grievances will allow any workplace problems to escalate, potentially leading to issues of low staff morale and potential reputational damage. 

Seeking support  

For practices seeking further support and information on handling staff complaints, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service’s (Acas) Guide to Discipline and Grievances at Work and the Acas Guide to workplace investigations offer a helpful briefing on the basics.  

There is, however, no substitute for tailored, expert, specialist legal advice to help safeguard a practice. 

Ian Pace is a principal associate at law firm Weightmans. He advises on all areas of employment and discrimination law, with considerable experience in acting for NHS Trusts and GP clients 

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