How to write a radical grievance or disciplinary policy

Grievance and disciplinary policies often undermine the values of radical groups. What can you do differently and what alternatives might carry risks?

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Conflict is an area where groups often default to punitive measures, which can easily reinforce the power of more privileged people. This is obviously not something we want to be doing in most progressive organisations, but the line between creating a supportive environment and making sure there is adequate accountability—to each other, boards or donors—can be tricky.

There will always be situations when people act in ways that don’t fit with the organisation’s safety policies and processes, or aren’t managing to carry out their role in the agreed ways – and this can lead to conflict. Standard grievance and disciplinary procedures tend to reinforce wider societal power structures, and further exclude those who are already most excluded.  As progressive organisations we need to find ways to create accountability which don’t entrench existing  power differences; and which take into account what people are dealing with in their lives outside the group or organisation.  Ideally our policies around conflict should allow everyone to feel safe whilst not resorting to punishment;  really try and hear different perspectives;  and not make people feel shamed or blamed, strengthening rather than corroding the bonds between us.

Why do we need grievance and disciplinary policies?

All organisations with paid employees should have grievance and disciplinary procedures in place. When we talk about employees and employers it’s important to work out who we mean. We could mean all of us in the organisation – for example in a worker co-operative we may all be member directors and therefore as well as being employees, we also hold collective responsibility as employers. Or we may have a separate board of directors who take responsibility as our employers, or a particular committee designated to hold employment responsibilities on behalf of the board of directors.

Many of us work in non-hierarchical organisations without line managers, or in small, team-led organisations with one person in a coordination role, and standard grievance and disciplinary policies don’t really translate to our circumstances. The aim of this guide is to provide something different to the many resources you can find online – we’re taking a radical HR approach to help you write a policy that makes sense for your organisation and the principles and values that underpin what you do and how you want to work together. 

Although only organisations with paid employees have to have grievance and disciplinary procedures, we would suggest other organisations have some sort of process for how they’ll deal with conflict in place early on. 

What does the law say?

It’s a requirement under The Employment Rights Act 1996 that employers specify in written statements of terms and conditions (employment contracts) where employees can access their organisation’s grievance and disciplinary procedures.

All employers are expected to follow a full and fair procedure in line with the Acas Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures, and employment tribunals are legally required to take the Acas Code of Practice into account.

Disciplinary procedures set out how an employee can be lawfully dismissed – this is important because unlawfully dismissing someone could lead to legal action being taken against your organisation.

There is no formal legal definition of a grievance. Grievances are defined in the Acas code as ‘concerns, problems or complaints that employees raise with their employers’. 

We have the statutory right to be accompanied by a colleague or Trade Union official to formal grievance meetings and any formal disciplinary meetings which could result in disciplinary action being taken against us. While the law doesn’t give employees the legal right to ask to bring a friend or relative instead, organisations can certainly write policies that broaden the level of support that is available to employees, including the option to be accompanied by a friend or family member. We need to tell our employer in advance of the meeting who will accompany us. 

We do not have to participate in informal grievance proceedings – we have the right to ask for a formal process to be followed instead.

We have the right to appeal against disciplinary and grievance decisions.

(When we have less than two years continuous employment with our organisation, in most cases we do not have the right to take legal action for unfair dismissal if our employer has not followed the full Acas code – exceptions include automatically unfair reasons for being dismissed that apply from day one of employment, including discrimination. Although the law does not offer protection from unfair dismissal for newer employees, we can still write policies that entitle them to be treated fairly in the same way as longer-term employees.)

What’s wrong with standard grievance and disciplinary policies?

Even the terms disciplinary and grievance are problematic. Disciplining one another, or raising grievances against each other, does not fit well with the ethos of co-operation, solidarity and mutual aid! 

Standard grievance and disciplinary policies are written for hierarchical organisations. They assume we all have line managers, and senior managers, and that people make decisions based on their level of seniority. Many of us are proud to be part of non-hierarchical organisations and want to think outside of having a boss who makes decisions for and about us, and many of us won’t have a line manager to complain to.

Standard policies are also based on ‘impartiality’ – the idea that someone (usually a manager) not directly involved in the situation will be able to investigate a grievance or disciplinary matter objectively, purely focussing on the facts. In reality the idea of impartiality is problematic – it doesn’t take into account the influence of power dynamics and privilege, and the impact of gender, class, educational background and race.  How do we approach this in non-hierarchical, progressive spaces? Is it possible to be impartial if we’re a small team with everyone deeply involved and invested in our organisation? Do we collectively buy into the idea of objectivity and impartiality? 

One of the things that we can do is to invite everyone in the organisation to help shape our policies and procedures so that we can address these questions together. We can intentionally choose to move away from individualism and the standard approach of blaming someone, and instead choose to look at our organisation’s systems and processes to work out how we can address the dynamics of harm. This will be most successful when we make sure that the people with the least power and privilege are able to actively participate within, and help to shape, our collective agreements.

We can also make sure that everyone understands how our policies and procedures work in practice. This helps mitigate the power imbalance of just one person (the manager or HR person) knowing the rules.

What about confidentiality?

Confidentiality is an important part of the employment relationship. Employers must comply with data protection legislation to keep details about employees confidential, particularly information that is classed as sensitive data such as health and medical conditions. For disciplinary and grievance procedures we should be mindful of the need to maintain confidentiality – the standard approach would be to make everything confidential, and for any witnesses to be told that they should not discuss any details of an investigation with colleagues, including the fact that an investigation is happening. If we intend to take a collaborative approach and involve more people in the process we will need to think carefully about how we will balance confidentiality with openness. This is especially true for those in precarious socio-economic or political situations, as it can be important to keep certain personal information confidential for folks at the sharp-end of countless wider systemic injustices.

How should we approach writing our policies?

We know that we need to have disciplinary and grievance policies, but that doesn’t mean we need to replicate mainstream, corporate culture when we design them for our organisations. We recommend you take the time to work out the details with input from as many people as possible in your organisation to create policies that genuinely work for all of you.

Full Guide

Download the full guides including templates:

How to write a radical grievance policy

How to write a radical disciplinary policy