Your employer's obligations when you have a grievance at work

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Good employers will be clear and open about what you can expect from them if you make a complaint. Unfortunately, others might make it difficult for you to understand their obligations, either purposefully or through negligence.

When you’re dealing with a difficult situation at work, it can be hard to know what's reasonable to expect from your employer and what rights you actually have in UK law.  

This guide breaks down the typical steps of a grievance procedure, with details of what your employer has to do at each step.

Raising a problem informally

When you’re first worried about something that has happened at work, it’s often a good idea to have an informal chat to your manager or someone else at work before starting a formal process. 

ACAS has guidance for employees about informally raising a complaint.

Employer no-nos: what your employer is not allowed to do

When you raise an informal complaint, there are a few things your employer legally must not do:

❌Punish you for raising a discrimination problem (victimisation)

If the issue at work involves discrimination, the law prevents your employer from punishing you for raising the issue - this is called victimisation.

❌ Force you to leave your job (constructive dismissal)

Your employer is not allowed to force you to resign through unfair treatment - this is called constructive dismissal.

❌ Force you into a one-to-one if you need support

Your employer has to let you bring someone else to the meeting if you need:

  • an interpreter or translator
  • someone to support your disability

Generally, your employer must let you bring someone to the meeting where saying no would amount to further discrimination.

Good practice: things your employer should do when you raise an issue

On top of the minimum legal position outlined above, ACAS suggests a number of things that your employer should do when you raise an informal complaint. These are things that you can reasonably ask for, keeping in mind that your employer is allowed to say no.

✅ Respond to your complaint

When an employee makes a complaint, employers are encouraged to follow specific guidance from ACAS

  • Take the complaint seriously and make time to hear the details.
  • Keep a record of what is raised and what next steps are agreed.
  • Follow up with the employee to see if the issue has been resolved.

It's reasonable to expect your employer to follow these guidelines, even if they do not legally have to do them.

✅ Always let you bring someone to your meeting

If you need a translator or disability support, your employer can’t legally refuse you bringing this support. However, ACAS encourages employers to let everyone bring someone with them if they want to. This could be for moral support, to help them state their case, or take notes, for example:

  • a colleague
  • a friend or family member 
  • a union rep

Formal complaints: What your employer must do

If you feel that your informal complaint has been handled badly, or if the issue is very serious (like a case of sexual harassment), you can raise a formal grievance. When you do, there are more things your employer is legally obliged to do.

Have a grievance process

By law, your employer must have a formal grievance process. 

The minimum standard for this is the ACAS Code of Practice for grievance procedures. Your employer might also have their own grievance procedure which builds on the ACAS Code. This procedure must be easy for you to find — typically you should expect to find it in your staff handbook.

What does a grievance process look like? - ACAS guidance

Follow their grievance process

When you raise a grievance, your employer has to take it seriously and formally follow their grievance process.

If your employer doesn't follow their grievance process, they are violating the ACAS Code. This means if you win your case at tribunal, they would have to pay extra compensation. This is called an ACAS uplift and can be up to 25% of the original award amount.

If they ignore the grievance process outlined in your contract, you could also make a claim for breach of contract.

Filing an official claim

If you are still not happy after raising a formal grievance, you can decide to take your case to an employment tribunal.

It’s important that you follow the grievance process, too. If you go to tribunal without first raising a formal grievance, the tribunal can reduce your compensation by up to 25% for not following the grievance process. They will make an exception if they think you had a good reason.

Bear in mind that, although this can be extended, you usually only have 3 months less one day to make your claim in the Employment Tribunal. This time starts to run from the time of the incident (or most recent incident) - not from when you raise your grievance. Even if you're waiting for a grievance outcome or grievance appeal outcome, make sure you submit your ET1 before time runs out.

If you’re thinking about taking your complaint to court, you can read about your employer’s obligations if you file a tribunal claim.

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