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Finding emotional balance during grievance investigations

By Sue Tumelty HR Dept

Senior managers sometimes find themselves having to investigate complaints against supervisors or lower-level managers. However, what should you do when the tide turns inward and someone raises a grievance against you, the senior manager or business owner? How do you handle a situation where you are the subject of a workplace investigation?

The mere thought of being the subject of a grievance enquiry can be overwhelming. Imagine the anxiety over the potential damage to your credibility and its impact on your role as a leader or business owner. The fear of not knowing how to resolve the issue can be paralysing.

Finding a Balance

Our natural reaction is often emotional. For some people, it’s shock and disbelief. For others, it’s distress or anger. However, the important thing is not to be afraid of your emotional reaction. What’s more important is knowing what to do with it.

In the first instance, you should pause and take a deep breath. Mistakes occur when you allow your emotions to determine your reaction. Take time out to think and speak to your HR advisor. You have to know when or if it’s appropriate to have an initial conversation with the complainant to resolve an issue informally versus needing to launch a thorough investigation. You’ve got to get it right because if you don’t, there may be legal repercussions further down the line.

Conducting an Investigation

Do not jump to conclusions or begin an investigation that supports what you think the outcome should be. Your HR advisor will point you toward the Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures for guidance on proceedings. 

An investigation is about fact-finding, discovering what happened. You must protect all parties in the investigation, the complainant, witnesses and yourself. Take simple measures to segment duties and put space between people, whatever is required, to make the working environment comfortable for yourself and those involved.

To remain impartial, you should assign someone to oversee the investigation. It’s a significant challenge for smaller organisations where employees report directly to the senior manager or owner. If that’s the case in your organisation, it’s essential to bring in an external investigator or give employees access to a counselling helpline or employee assistance programme.

If you’re a business owner, exercise caution around suspension. Whilst you may view suspension as a ‘neutral act’, it should only be used as a last resort after exploring all other options. You may have to suspend both parties in the interest of fairness. Note that there are alternatives to suspension, such as working from home during an investigation.

Achieving Closure

Depending on the outcome of the grievance, you still have to deal with the fact that the case has impacted the team or department. The fallout of a grievance is amplified in smaller business settings because fewer people are involved. There’s no prescriptive method for handling these situations. 

It’s essential to get people back together, talking and communicating with each other. It’s necessary to review the culture of your business. You may have to look at what behaviours led to the grievance – perhaps they were perceived as acceptable where, in fact, they’re not. It would be helpful to ask yourself, “Do we have a positive culture where employees can complain without feeling intimidated?” It helps to have a clear understanding of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours in the workplace.

Upon completing an investigation and where a grievance has been resolved, people will want to know what happened. Considering the process is confidential, the essential thing is to demonstrate that, as a business owner or senior manager, you are willing to take action to resolve the matter. The team must understand that the matter is closed, and it’s time to move on.

Getting Help and Advice

The reality is that people have to believe that the issue is resolved and there has been a change after the event. You can’t brush an incident under the carpet. It must be dealt with, faced head-on. The best way to do this is with professional HR advice.


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Suspension should be a last resort, and alternatives such as remote work during the investigation should be explored. Ensure that actions taken are fair and consider the impact on the individuals and the team.

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