Grievances Can Make Things Worse… or Better

The author looks at the grievance process in federal HR, its history, effectiveness and current alternatives to settling disputes.

Before I even began working for the Federal government I experienced a management abuse of the system. I was being interviewed for a GS-5 Contact Representative position with the Social Security Administration. It was in the autumn of 1974 and I appeared before a panel of 3 managers. Among the questions asked of me was this one, “If you were President Ford, would you pardon [the recently resigned] Richard Nixon?”

I wondered what the questioner was looking for and what this had to do with the SSA. I made the split-second decision to just answer honestly, as if a friend or family member had asked the same of me. As it turned out, I got the job and have been working for Uncle Sam (as an employee and contract trainer) ever since. Much later, I asked someone in the know about that question. “It was totally inappropriate and probably illegal” was the response.

Fast forward to 2017. For most of the past 42 years, I’ve made a living teaching seminars concerning 3 problematic regions on the Federal landscape: performance appraisals; dealing with problematic employees; and union-management relations. I commonly address touchy issues such as substance abuse, discrimination complaints, performance ratings, unfair labor practices, and investigative interviews. The most difficult topic for me; however, is grievances.

In my initial week-long labor relations training, I was taught that grievances are essentially good. They are the bedrock of any labor agreement, reflect a positive form of alternative dispute resolution, and constitute a system of justice within the workplace. Moreover, my instructors assured us that grievances are a necessary form of workplace communication. With each grievance, management can learn of areas that may be of greater concern to employees than leadership realize.

Candle lighters and darkness cursers

As I began working with grievances I began seeing that those who file them fall into a few distinguishable groups. Among them are

  1. The pushbacker. People who have been singled out in some negative way commonly by disciplinary action, non-selection, or similar slights concerning overtime, travel, training, details, etc. can be expected to avail themselves of the grievance system. These grievants are seeking reversals of management decisions that have already been considered and made.
  2. The last straw. These employees have felt the burden of repeated wrongs and have overcome a reluctance to be seen as a complainer or questioning authority. These folks are carrying the weight of prior indignities and will not be easily swayed by explanations as to why things work the way they do.
  3. The chronic filer. These are people who file repeated grievances (and/or EEO complaints) in an effort to frustrate their agency’s leadership. The source of their willingness to toss grenades is commonly forgotten and management’s desire to discount their complaints.
  4. The justice seeker. Right is right and wrong is wrong. Oftentimes, gray doesn’t exist for these folks. Rules were never made to be broken and neither nuance nor situational management can explain away deviations. The justice seeker is sometimes “taking one for the team” as they grieve matters that others won’t.

Like many other FedSmith readers, I was mistreated by managers during my short 14-year tenure in government. Like my interview question, most of those sins were inconsequential. Others cost me dearly. Never, however, did I file a grievance. That’s true of most Feds I’ve encountered. The person who does file has crossed a barrier most Feds won’t – biting at the hands that feed. Such individuals are not to be taken lightly.

The system may not be the solution

The dynamics relating to grievances is further complicated by the system itself. Grievances are filed by employees and/or their unions against management… to management! Those who are accused are called upon to judge their innocence or guilt.

The grievance system for employees not covered under a union agreement (which includes all supervisors and managers) is set forth in 5 CFR 771 and says virtually nothing. In most agencies it’s a one-shot process resulting in an answer that cannot be escalated. We referred to it as “one and done” – the vast majority of those infrequent grievances being denied.

Because “administrative” grievances are so ineffectual, most HR specialists view grievances in the context of negotiated procedures which commonly provide for as series of steps that can escalate the matter to higher (and presumably more independent) levels of agency management. Invariably these systems begin “at the lowest possible level”. This means that the first level supervisor is called upon as judge… and most commonly accused as well.

Can we reasonably expect the supervisor to convict her/himself? I would like to believe that my better angels would have me admit my mistakes when confronted. I have failed to heed them on too many occasions. Defensive responses like “Yes but…” seem autonomic at times. I may be rooting for those supervisors who have the equanimity to objectively assess their own actions, but not betting on the likelihood they will.

Which side are you on?

If/When that 1st level of management responds to the grievance in a way that doesn’t satisfy the employee and/or their union representative, the grievance often escalates. Now, the question moves to the desks of higher level managers who are usually in the same line of leadership. Will they “side” with the employee or the subordinate supervisor? I needn’t spell out the odds or implicit biases for you.

Add to this dilemma the guidance/advice of Labor Relations Specialists. Most of the younger colleagues I’ve met have been trained to view their jobs as opposing and deterring unions. HR advisors commonly look for ways to deny the grievance. Accordingly, the “us” vs. “them” lines become ever more defining as the original grievance escalates, the original complaint and issues grow more distant.

Grievance response could go in either of 3 directions: deny it; grant it; or partially grant the employee’s stated relief. As a Labor Relations Specialist back in the day I was inserted into the management huddle when grievances were discussed. Too often, I saw my job as finding ways to deny the grievance or grant the least relief possible.

The road less traveled

There is an exit from the messy process of grievances. That door opens to a reasonable discussion of the circumstances leading to the grievance and a path ahead that might satisfy both parties without need to win or lose. Instead of evaluating the veracity and harm of past slights, oversights, and wrongs; those who study alternative dispute resolution look to the future and what might change to make things better.

While outside mediators may be best equipped to effect this shift away from granting and denying grievances, union officials may serve in this role. They occupy the least partisan point on the grievance triangle. Designated management officials who have been trained in these conflict resolution skills might also be deployed to decide on grievances and work with the parties toward solutions not grounded in granting or denying.

When we advised managers a generation ago, they were told to listen, take notes, and only ask clarifying questions. The deeper “interests” of that person were to be avoided.

In the 21st century, it’s time to take the opposite tack. I believe the designated manager and union representative should be asking the employee questions like these: Is this the first time something like this has happened to you? Do you respect your supervisor’s leadership? What led you to work for this agency? What do you enjoy most and least about your job? If you could change one aspect of your work life, what would that be? How have you contributed to this problem?

These (seemingly irrelevant) questions serve to reach the intangibles propelling both the grievance and the person who filed it. Those of us who mediate for Federal agencies, often find they alter the win/lose environment. Both parties begin to look away from the specifics of a grievance and toward resolving a problem. Solutions are less about granting/denying and look toward improving the very relationships that grievances jeopardize.

Old school/New school

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been using outside mediators in similar circumstances – allegations of discrimination. Of academic studies, they write as follows:

The first report, entitled An Evaluation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Mediation Program, examined the program from the perspective of charging parties and respondents and their satisfaction with the EEOC mediation process. The survey of parties who participated in the program found the process to be fair and neutral, and 96% of respondents and 91% of charging parties indicated they would use the mediation process again if the opportunity arose, even where the results of the mediation were different than they had anticipated.

Back in the 1990s, it was a project convincing the EEOC to try mediation. It was new and too different for an agency led by attorneys. We, who began those experiments in Seattle, finally convinced them to try it and the successes were undeniable. Those who continue to model union-management conflict from a 1970s model will discard this article. It will take risk-takers on both sides to give it a try.

As unions and management look at coming years of an administration and congress hostile to the civil service, the quantitative and hidden costs associated with grievances should have both sides looking for improvements. Training in basic mediation techniques for those most involved in labor relations may prove a smart investment. It turned my head.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to