Resolving employee disputes internally

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Ignoring a problem and hoping it will go away, often only leads to bigger problems later. Delays can also create added frustration and “avoidable distress”, with productivity, legal and cost consequences.

Mattias Tyrberg - Saplo - Young Entrepreneur of the Year

As noted, a process for issue resolution should be outlined in any employment agreement. A clear problem-solving procedure can help protect people’s rights, and provide information to support decision-making. It can also help ensure that the problem doesn’t get worse through inconsistencies or misunderstandings.

In some cases, process problems themselves can cause the breakdown of the employment relationship and lead an employee to claim unfair treatment, so it’s important to get the process right.

First steps in dealing with a problem

If either side believes that there is a problem, it should be raised as soon as possible. Everyone should try in good faith to resolve any problems themselves before looking for outside assistance.

It is critical that no one jumps to conclusions when an issue is first raised. Everyone should make any decisions fairly and consistently. This is usually not complicated – but each side should investigate, gather information and think before acting.

In all cases, everyone should be treated with respect and consideration.
Sensitive issues should be dealt with in a confidential manner – for example, by not conducting interviews in public or open-plan spaces. Both sides should try to set aside emotion and concentrate on identifying and addressing the underlying reasons for the problem.

It may help to have a third party present as a witness when a problem is discussed, to prevent misunderstandings. For instance, an employee may wish to have a support person, union delegate or other representative present. Both sides should keep notes of any meetings and any agreements reached.

In general, it is a good idea to:

Be clear about the facts

Make sure that what each side thinks has happened or is happening is not just based on an assumption or a misunderstanding. Employees or employers may get help to clarify the issue by talking to the Department of Labour or their own representative organisation such as a union or employer or industry association.

Talk to each other

Employers and employees should try to resolve the problem by discussing it with each other. Both parties are responsible for this. Union members can ask their union, and employers can ask their employers' association, to approach the other party for them.

If an employee believes they have a personal grievance, they must raise it with their employer within 90 days of the action complained of, or the date they became aware of it, whichever is the later.

Clarify whether there is a problem, and if so, what it is
This shouldn’t be delayed. The problem should be fully discussed to clarify what the problem actually is.

Consider what assistance is needed to help resolve the problem. Parties may consider whether mediation assistance might be useful at this stage.

It’s a good idea to know what the law is and what the employment agreement says and, if necessary, to consult an advisor.

The Department of Labour has a range of services including information, mediation and investigation, which can be accessed through the Department’s contact centre on 0800 20 90 20. Any possible breaches of minimum rights can be investigated by a labour inspector. The problem can be  referred to a labour inspector through the contact centre.

Further steps

If a problem can’t be resolved, parties can go to mediation, either through the Department of Labour’s  mediation services or through independent mediators. If this does not resolve the problem, employers or employees can go to the Employment Relations Authority for a determination.

If either party is dissatisfied with the determination of the  Employment Relations Authority, the issue can be taken to the  Employment Court.

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