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How to avoid the tribunal bottleneck

11th January 2019

New Year, new determination among employees to make a fresh start and deal with grievances. In 2019, however, that means joining the queue, long waiting times and an accumulation of problems for HR.

The rush for employment tribunals since the scrapping of fees means that some tribunals won’t be heard until 2020, according to the employment tribunal National User Group. Its most recent report claims there has been a 165% increase in numbers of claims compared with last year.

The blockage isn’t great for the employee or the employer. No matter how uncomfortable and disruptive the tribunal process becomes, it does at least provide a sense of progress on a dispute, an outlet and a resolution. Instead, there’s the problem of unhappy employees continuing to be in the workplace environment, the potential for worsening friction; or there’s the direct cost of longer-term absence.

HR need to be looking again at their processes for dealing with workplace relationship issues, and how they can keep more cases away from the tribunal system.


  1. Pick up on issues earlier

Line managers should be made more aware of the importance of catching grievances before they can escalate into formal action. The best working environments are based on good conversations: the inevitable workplace disagreements and differences in opinion and personality are dealt with lightly, through open conversations based on trust. To reach this stage, managers and staff need better conversational intelligence skills – which can be learnt and practised – until no-one should ever feel as if their problems are unimportant or unsolvable, there’s always a constructive way to reach a resolution.


  1. Early mediation

Offering mediation early on allows for confidential conversations to begin without the need to resort to the more formal processes. Conversations that provide a basis for a resolution, more understanding and clarity, will begin to loosen rigid positions – and build trust in you as an employer. Employers benefit most of all from having an established service that people can turn to as the standard, informal route. Mediation then becomes part of the culture, commonly used and trusted, with nothing remarkable or uncomfortable about it.


  1. Guarantee professionalism

Don’t make the mistake of using untrained managers as mediators. Experienced managers in an organisation can often assume they know best – they know the people, the situation – and don’t listen with an open mind. Instead, they make assumptions and want to get to a black and white resolution as soon as possible. Without training, in-house mediators struggle to deal with sensitive situations, to take feelings into account, and only want to work with clear facts. In many disagreements, indisputable facts may be hard to come by.


  1. Make space for conversations

Managers need to structure their communications and relationships with staff in ways that provide an important element of time, to mitigate against knee-jerk reactions and voicing of instant opinions. That’s why the face-to-face method needs to be used as much as possible. They provide a useful series of pauses to arrange and set up and deliver, ensuring time for reflection and a context where thought and behaviour will be different. And in support of this approach, there needs to be work on ensuring people understand that face-to-face doesn’t just mean bad news.


  1. Investigate properly

When there are any serious grievance cases, it’s critical that employers can demonstrate they have taken a professional approach. That means having a system in place that conforms with legislation and best practice, and the capability – either through trained staff internally or external support – to carry out watertight investigations, that aren’t going to lead to further challenges and disputes. Like mediations, when an employer has an established investigation service in place – even though it’s only used rarely and for the most complex and sensitive cases – it’s reassurance for employees. They know they can speak out when they really have to.