Grievance Management in the USA

Unions and employers know that employee dissatisfaction is a potential source of trouble, whether it is expressed or not. Hidden dissatisfaction grows and creates reactions that may be completely out of proportion to the original concerns. Therefore, it is important that dissatisfaction be given an outlet. A complaint, which is merely an indication of employee dissatisfaction that has not been submitted in writing, is one outlet. If the employee is represented by a union, and the employee says, “I should have received the job transfer because I have more seniority, which is what the union contract states,” and she submits it in writing, then that complaint is a grievance. A grievance is a complaint that has been put in writing and thus made formal. Management should be concerned with both complaints and grievances, because both may be important indicators of potential problems within the workforce. Without a grievance procedure, management may be unable to respond to employee concerns because managers are unaware of them. Therefore, a formal grievance procedure is a valuable communication tool for the organization.

Grievance Responsibilities

Table shows the typical division of responsibilities between the HR unit and line managers for handling grievances. These responsibilities vary considerably from one organization to another, even between unionized firms. But the HR unit usually has more general responsibilities. Managers must accept the grievance procedure as a possible constraint on some of their decisions. Management should recognize that a grievance is a behavioral expression of some underlying problem. This statement does not mean that every grievance is a symptom of something radically wrong. Employees do file grievances over petty matters as well as over important concerns, and management must be able to differentiate between the two. However, to ignore a repeated problem by taking a legalistic approach to grievance resolution is to miss much of what the grievance procedure can do for management.

Grievance Procedures

Grievance procedures are formal communications channels designed to settle a grievance as soon as possible after the problem arises. First-line supervisors are usually closest to a problem; however, the supervisor is concerned with many other matters besides one employee’s grievance, and may even be the subject of an employee’s grievance. Supervisory involvement presents some problems in solving a grievance at this level. For example, William Dunn, a 27-year-old lathe operator at a machine shop, is approached by his supervisor, Joe Bass, one Monday morning and told that his production is lower than his quota. Bass advises Dunn to catch up. Dunn reports that a part of his lathe needs repair. Bass suggests that Dunn should repair it himself to maintain his production because the mechanics are busy. Dunn refuses, and a heated argument ensues; as a result, Bass orders Dunn to go home for the day. The illustration shows how easily an encounter between an employee and a supervisor can lead to a breakdown in the relationship. This breakdown, or failure to communicate effectively, could be costly to Dunn if he loses his job, a day’s wages, or his pride. It also could be costly to Bass, who represents management, and to the owner of the machine shop if production is delayed or halted. Grievance procedures can resolve such conflicts.

In this particular case, the machine shop has a contract with the International Brotherhood of Lathe Operators, of which Dunn is a member. The contract specifically states that company plant mechanics are to repair all manufacturing equipment. Therefore, Bass appears to have violated the union contract. What is Dunn’s next step? He may use the grievance procedure provided for him in the contract. The actual grievance procedure is different in each organization. It depends on what the employer and the union have agreed on and what is written in the labor contract.

A unionized employee generally has a right to union representation if he or she is being questioned by management and if discipline may result. If these so called Weingarten rights (named after the court case that established them) are violated and the employee is dismissed, he or she usually will be reinstated with back pay.


Grievance procedures can vary in the number of steps they include. Figure shows a typical procedure, which includes the following steps:

    1. The employee discusses the grievance with the union steward (the union’s representative on the job) and the supervisor.

    2. The union steward discusses the grievance with the supervisor’s manager.

    3. The union grievance committee discusses the grievance with appropriate company managers.

    4. The representative of the national union discusses the grievance with designated company executives.

    5. The final step may be to use an impartial third party for ultimate disposition of the grievance.

Steps in a Grievance Procedure

If the grievance remains unsettled, representatives for both sides would continue to meet to resolve the conflict. On rare occasions, a representative from the national union might join the process. Or, a corporate executive from headquarters (if the firm is a large corporation) might be called in to help resolve the grievance.

If not solved at this stage, the grievance goes to arbitration. Arbitration is flexible and can be applied to almost any kind of controversy except those involving criminal matters. Advisory, or voluntary, arbitration may be used in negotiating agreements or in interpreting clauses in existing agreements. Because labor and management generally agree that disputes over the negotiation of a new contract should not be arbitrated in the private sector, the most important role played by arbitration in labor relations is as the final step in the grievance procedure.

Grievance arbitration is a means by which disputes arising from different interpretations of a labor contract are settled by a third party. This should not be confused with contract or issues arbitration, discussed earlier, when arbitration is used to determine how a contract will be written. Grievance arbitration presents several problems. It has been criticized as being too costly, too legalistic, and too time-consuming. One study found that arbitrators generally treated women more leniently than men in disciplinary grievance situations. In addition, many feel that there are too few qualified and experienced arbitrators. Despite these problems, arbitration has been successful and is currently seen as a potentially superior solution to traditional approaches to resolving union-management problems.