"Some of the most appalling and damaging disputes occur between individuals in the voluntary sector." This is the candid assessment of Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
The CIPD estimates that there is one grievance case for every 92 staff in the voluntary sector, compared with one in 323 in the public sector and one in 516 in the private sector. These figures will come as no surprise to Third Sector readers, who will have seen a steady stream of reports of grievances that have ended in employment tribunals.
There is a hot debate over whether staff in the sector really are more likely to encounter bullying at work, or whether people working in it are more likely to claim that they have been bullied. But the grievances that actually get to tribunal are not based solely on allegations of bullying. Recent cases include sex discrimination (the YWCA), unfair dismissal on the grounds of religion (Prospects) and failure to make adjustments for an employee's disability (the NSPCC).
The Way Ahead, a report published by charity chief executives organisation Acevo earlier this year, underlined the fact that ineffective HR practices are certainly a contributory factor. So what can HR staff do to minimise the chances of employees having grievances?
1. INVEST IN PEOPLE MANAGEMENT
Small and medium-sized voluntary sector organisations often simply do not consider HR and people management - which should cover volunteers as well - an intrinsic element of overall good practice. In Acevo's The Way Ahead, trade union Amicus cites "hundreds, if not thousands, of organisations where HR management fails its employees due to a lack of accessible expertise". One option is for larger organisations that do have HR expertise to share best practice with smaller organisations. Guy Pink, HR director at Addaction, points out that this is great career development for the individual as well as helping the smaller charity improve the way it handles HR. But there is no formal system for arranging this type of exchange. The most important first step is simply recognising that HR does involve specific skills.
2. GET HR FUNDED AND COSTED PROPERLY
It is universally acknowledged that a lot of individual, corporate and statutory funders dismiss work that is not on the front line as 'admin' and, consequently, it can be hard to secure funding for it. "Funding mechanisms, either through contracts or fundraising, have rarely allowed organisations to develop," says Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo. In particular, HR is an important element to include in any bid based on full cost recovery. The template that Acevo produces on full cost recovery highlights the need to ensure that tenders fully cover HR.
3. CONSULT EMPLOYEES EVERY DAY
Group "employee consultation mechanisms", as Bubb calls them, are an effective way of getting staff opinions on the organisation's overall management and its way forward. The Acevo report points out that union branches can often end up devising draft policies and "acting as a conduit to management" because nobody else in the organisation takes this responsibility. Not all third sector organisations have union branches, and some actively discourage them, but some kind of organised staff group can prove to be an invaluable forum for addressing problems before they become serious.
4. TACKLE PROBLEMS AS THEY ARISE
Acknowledging people management as a separate set of skills also means acknowledging that it is part of a manager's job to recognise problems and take a lead in working them out, as opposed to the more usual approach of ignoring them while they escalate and then subjecting the employee to a shouting match. "Tackle issues early and informally," says the CIPD's Emmott. "You have to overcome that natural reluctance to get into difficult conversations. Establish the root cause of the problem and work towards some way of resolving it."
5. ADOPT PROCEDURES AND KEEP RECORDS
First meetings about an individual employee's problem should be fairly informal, but it's also important that there is a set and recognised process in case matters do need to be taken further - and this includes recording what has been agreed. In the event of a formal grievance, both sides will need everything clearly set out in writing. The current regulations set out a procedure that both employers and employees need to follow if they are going to persuade a tribunal that they have behaved sensibly. A grievance policy document need not be very complicated, but it should follow the stages set out in the Acas code of practice - a new, shorter revised code should be available from next April.
6. BE OPEN MINDED ABOUT MEDIATION
The CIPD is particularly keen that organisations try mediation before taking disputes to the tribunal stage. In fact, it would prefer this option to be written into employment contracts. "We think that the voluntary sector is relatively open-minded about mediation and is prepared to give it a run," says Emmott. "It is an opportunity for parties to readjust their own thinking and find out how the other side is thinking." Obviously, this does have cost implications, either in terms of training in-house staff or for buying in the services of an external provider.