How should I raise an issue with my employer?

Some employment law is undoubtedly complicated, and some employers can expand (or contract) their businesses without taking the time to appreciate that responsibilities are involved in employing people, and that they need to understand employment law. 

Deciding how to raise an issue with your employer can be difficult. Larger employers are more likely to have proper procedures, and are less likely to be in breach of the law. In fact, a disproportionate number of tribunal cases are to do with small employers. 

At best, your employer may be grateful, or at least accept that they are in the wrong. At worst they can victimise you, and although in many cases, you have special legal protection if you are treated unfairly because you have raised a legal issue, it can still be a difficult process to take the matter through an employment tribunal

Despite the odd newspaper story about tribunals awarding huge damages, these cases are the exception, usually involving highly paid individuals who have suffered substantial loss of earnings. Awards are normally much more modest. For example, the median compensation award for an unfair dismissal claim in the employment tribunal in 2018-19 was just £6,243. 

If you think that it will be difficult to raise an issue with your employer directly, there may be other ways of doing so: 

  • If you are in a union, you can complain through your union representative. 

  • If you do not have a union rep then depending on the nature of your concern, specialist charities are sometimes willing to contact the employer on your behalf. 

  • In any event, you might find it easier to set out the issue in writing, as this might lead to a considered response. You can enclose material setting out the law. 

  • If the problem affects a group of people, and not just you, think about how you might raise the issue collectively, perhaps through a petition or anonymous letter that sets out the legal position clearly. While unions may not be able to take up the problems of an individual non-member, they may be very happy to take up a group issue. It may even increase union membership and help secure recognition in your workplace. Have a look at our Union Finder tool for information on the different unions and on how to go about organising to build the case for union recognition where you work. 

  • You can encourage your employer to conduct a survey of the workforce, to find out whether a problem, for example workload stress, or bullying by customers and members of the public, is shared more widely across the workforce, and to canvass information as to how staff would like the issue dealt with. 

  • If it's an issue involving equality and diversity and your employer is a public sector organisation, or a private sector organisation that provides public services, you can remind your employer of its statutory public sector equality duty. There is more information on the website of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The best way of complying with the duty is for your employer to conduct an equality impact assessment. 

  • If it's an issue that is policed by an external agency such the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), then you can call them in. 

  • If it is an issue involving 'whistleblowing' – where you are considering raising concerns about wrongdoing by your employer – you should first contact the independent expert whistleblowing charity Protect (they used to be called Public Concern at Work). They run a confidential advice line. 

  • Your employer is required to have a formal grievance procedure. If an informal approach is rebuffed or unlikely to work, then you should find out about it. Details are likely to be included in a staff handbook or your contract of employment. Formalising the issue in this way may be useful if your problem is with your immediate boss, as it may involve others such as your HR department. Even if you are the only person raising a grievance, it can be a good idea, if possible, to frame your grievance as an organisational issue that needs resolving and that affects a group of workers and future workers, rather than as a personal grievance affecting only you. In a formal grievance hearing, you have the right to be accompanied by a colleague or a union officer. 

  • Some issues might be suitable for in-work mediation. This is a process whereby an independent third party tries to help the two sides reach an agreement. Acas is the TUC’s preferred mediator. The joint TUC and Acas guide to mediation (PDF) has more information as to how the process works and the kinds of dispute to which it might be suited. 

  • Even if you are raising an issue informally, you should think about taking a colleague with you and write down everything that happens as soon as possible. Always keep correspondence and your notes in a safe place, and avoid using a work computer. Fair and accurate, contemporaneous notes should trump a manager's subsequent recollection if it goes to a tribunal. 

  • Before a claim can be brought in the employment tribunal, you must submit an Acas Early Conciliation Notification Form as a first step. Acas early conciliation is free of cost and for many straightforward work disputes, such as non-payment of holiday pay, the involvement of an outside party such as an Acas conciliator may be all the employer needs to be convinced that your position in the dispute is correct. 

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.

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