Grievances: Doing the Right Thing

"Many a man would rather have you hear his tale than grant his request.
--G.K Chesterton

The ideal grievance system would be impartial, respectful of all parties, easily accessible, expeditious, affordable, and binding in its final determination. Above all, it would be used.

If your co-op has a grievance procedure on paper, but it has never been put to the test, that's not necessarily a sign of fair management practices and contented employees. And if employees are bringing grievances directly to the board, that's a sure sign that the grievance procedure needs to be more publicized, or perhaps overhauled.

On the other hand, the fact that a number of grievances are filed does not necessarily indicate problems in management. The grievance system should function as part of a system of checks and balances within the co-op. In numerous co-ops I've worked with, boards and employees are fearful of giving managers enough power to take positive action in running their stores. Maybe those managers could be given more power if everyone felt reassured that an effective system is in place that allows employees to appeal management decisions that affect them.

Recent court decisions in wrongful termination lawsuits have tended to favor employers who have in-house grievance procedures. And a well-functioning grievance program keeps employers and employees out of court in the first place, since problems can be dealt with much more effectively closer to home.

Traditionally, non-union companies have used the so-called open door policy as a forum for appeals. Employees who were unhappy with a decision by their own supervisor could go to the supervisor's boss and if unhappy with that resolution, could work their way up the chain of command all the way to the CEO, theoretically. Recently, some progressive corporations have been experimenting with "peer review,' in which an employee can take a grievance to a randomly selected, pre-trained panel of management and non-management employees who hear the case and come up with a binding solution. Still another model requires disputes to go to binding arbitration by professional arbitrators, as in many union contracts.

In small organizations with flat hierarchies, an "open door" policy would lead immediately to the general manager, leaving an employee with no further recourse. All too often such cases end up at board meetings, disrupting the board's agenda and undermining the board's relationship with the general manager. For larger co-ops (say, over 100 employees) willing to invest in training panelists, peer review could work quite well. But in smaller co-ops with relatively few employees and resources, a peer review system might be difficult to implement.

Grievance committee

Here's a hybrid grievance procedure combining some features of open door, peer review and outside arbitrator models that might help co-op boards and managers come up with workable solutions.

There would not be a standing grievance committee, but every time a grievance is filed, a committee would be assembled consisting of at least 3 members (always an odd number). Two or more of its members would be co-op employees, one a manager and the other a non-manager (or an equal number of both). They should be selected by and mutually agreeable to the employee with the grievance and the general manager.

The third (or final) member would be an outside third party who is a paid professional with education and/or experience in mediation, labor relations, human resources, or some other qualification that makes them skilled in dispute resolution. This person would serve as the grievance committee chair. S/he would be on retainer, hired for a set length of time by the board on the recommendation of management. It may be possible to find someone in your community who will volunteer her/his time, but is it important that s/he have professional skills and be neutral (e.g., not close friends with co-op staff or board).

The responsibilities of the committee would be to:

  1. Hear the grievance of an employee against management, where direct attempts to solve the problem have been unsuccessful.
  2. Evaluate the grievance and arrive at a binding decision on resolving it.
  3. Evaluate and recommend.
  4. Keep written records of resolutions reached and actions taken.
  5. Monitor use of labor hours in each grievance procedure, and keep within the established budget and timeline.
  6. Report annually to the board ofdirectors on the number of grievances heard and recommend changes in the mechanics ofthe grievance procedure as needed.

Grounds for a grievance

It is a good idea to establish grounds for grievances in order to weed out vague accusations and interpersonal conflicts. Most cases of disputes between employees and management fall into one of four categories:

  1. violation of existing policies;
  2. inconsistent application of policy to different employees in similar situations;
  3. an unfair situation for which no policy exists; or,
  4. an unfair situation caused by an inherently unfair or discriminatory policy.

If the situation doesn't fall into one of these four categories, the gi-ievance committee can refuse to hear it and send it back to management to settle.


Employees filing grievances have a right to confidentiality. If they want to tell everyone about it, that's their choice, as long as they don't do it in a way that disrupts work at the co-op. Even if the employee chooses to talk publicly about her/his grievance, the grievance procedure should still be conducted as confidentially as possible. The committee may be reviewing sensitive information such as how other cases were handled or the pay rates of other employees.

Anyone serving on the committee must agree to complete confidentiality. If a committee member violates this agreement by divulging any information while a grievance is going on, s/he should be barred from ever serving on a grievance committee again and should receive a written reprimand from the grievance committee to go in her/his personnel file. At the end of the grievance, the committee should meet with the employee who filed it and the general manager and decide whether the results of the grievance should be made public. Ultimately, this is the general manager's call.


  1. The procedure should always require that the employee who feels unfairly treated first approach her/his supervisor. If the general manager is not the employee's immediate supervisor, or if the situation is one that the supervisor cannot remedy, the next step is for the employee to meet with the general manager. A grievance can only be filed if the employee has first tried to find a solution with the general manager.
  2. If the employee is not satisfied with the response of the general manager, s/he files a grievance. I suggest that there be an established grievance filing form. (Sample questions for such a form are in the sidebar.) If your co-op has a personnel manager, s/he would be the appropriate person to give out forms and receive them, maintaining neutrality throughout. If there is no one in this role, forms could be posted on the staff bulletin board alongside the prominently posted address and contact number of the grievance committee chair.
  3. The grievance committee chair informs the general manager so that the manager and the employee will both select the other members of the grievance committee.
  4. The grievance committee reviews the case to make sure that it falls into the established grounds for a grievance and to make sure that prior attempts to resolve the problem have been made. The committee should not take on a case where the employee has not spoken to and received a response from the general manager.
  5. The grievance committee meets with the employee, the general manager, the supervisor if needed, and other employees who may have relevant information, (e.g., those who observed an incident). Confidentiality will be asked of each person with whom the committee has contact.
  6. The grievance committee meets privately and comes to a binding determination; that is, the employee and management must abide by the committee's decision.
    • In cases of complaints of violations of existing policy, the committee determines whether management has in fact violated the policy. If so, it sends the case back to management for a new decision in line with the policy.
    • In cases of complaint of inconsistent application of policy, the committee will consider previous management decisions and determine if in fact the policies have been applied inconsistently to different employees in similar situations. If so, the committee will delineate a course of action to management.
    • In cases of a complaint of an unfair situation for which there is no applicable policy, the committee determines if the situation is in fact covered by existing policy, and if not, determines how this case should be handled and recommends a policy to management.
    • In cases where the fairness of an existing policy is questioned, the committee researches the intent of the policy when adopted, determines whether or not it is unfair, and if so on what grounds, then determines how this case should be handled and recommends a change in policy to management.
    • Ideally the committee should reach a unanimous decision within the time frame. If consensus cannot be reached, the decision can be made by a majority.
  7. The committee meets with the general manager, employee (and supervisor if appropriate) and decides what information if any will be made public to the rest of the staff.


Name__________________________________________________ Date____________________

Under the grievance policy, your complaint must fall into at least one of the following four categories. Please check which description(s) best fit your complaint.

  ___ I believe that there has been a violation of existing policy.
  ___ I believe that an existing policy has been inconsistently applied.
  ___ I believe that there is an unfair situation and that there is no applicable policy to cover it.
  ___ I believe that an existing policy is unfair or discriminatory.

1. Please describe the situation, including any events leading up to it. Include the date or time period in which this situation arose.


2. Please list anyone directly involved in the situation.


3. What steps have you taken to resolve this with your supervisor? with the general manager?


4. How does this situation fall into one of the four grievance categories?


5. If your grievance involves an unfair situation, where there is no applicable policy, or a policy which you believe to be inherently unfair, describe the policy changes you think should be made.


6. Please describe the specific results you are seeking through filing this grievance.

Budget and timeline

Once the procedure starts, the clock is ticking. The outside third party is probably being paid by the hour, the staff members of the grievance committee certainly are being paid, and any employees called on to testify to the committee should be paid for their time as well. The employee who files the grievance shouldn't be paid for the time spent writing out the filing form, but s/ he should be paid for time spent testifying to the committee. Therefore the coop has an interest in limiting the paid hours spent on a grievance. I suggest that 40 hours is the maximum amount that should be paid for, and 20 hours is a reasonable figure to shoot for.

The co-op as an organization also has an interest in seeing that grievances are resolved promptly. An employee's status or pay rate might be up in the air; a manager might be unsure of how to proceed until the committee comes up with a decision. At the same time, it could take a few days to assemble the grievance committee and schedule the time of the outside third party (who is probably not ready to drop everything in the event of a grievance). Here I suggest 4 weeks as a maximum, with 2 weeks the desirable norm.

Finally, the grievance procedure should be well publicized, and managers should encourage staff to use it. As an employer, the co-op owes it to its employees to provide an effective forum to deal with cases of perceived unfairness. Even if they do not prevail, even if the grievance committee comes to a conclusion in favor of management, employees will be truly heard.

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