Grievance procedures have a bad reputation. Public-sector employees need to be able to complain when they feel they're victimized by management--no question about that. But the problems crop up when the grievance process is so complex and time-consuming that it stifles managers and employees from doing their jobs properly.

Some human resource managers complain that too many grievances are filed on frivolous grounds--just to delay the inevitable or to get revenge. Others point to hostile union environments as the roots of many grievances. During the last gubernatorial election in strong- union Alaska, for instance, the number of grievances went up dramatically. The outrage seemed more a function of the union's desire to make things tough on the incumbent party, than of the emergence of a bunch of bosses who had been transformed overnight into Simon Legrees.

Of course, dealing with grievances is never going to be pleasant. But in a growing number of governments, successful efforts have been made to provide employees with the opportunity to redress management wrongs without damaging the entity's ability to do business efficiently.

The key to many of these reforms is to get grievances heard and fixed at the lowest level possible. In Idaho, for example, an employee who wanted to fight reassignment to the night shift used to have to go through the same process as one who had been fired. This one-size- fits-all mindset belied common sense. Under Idaho's new system, simpler problems go through an expedited problem-solving approach, at a reasonably low organization level and without an overload of formal procedures. "In the past, it was taken out of the hands of the people who could really solve the problem," says Ann Heilman, administrator of the Division of Human Resources. "Now, supervisors and managers are expected to solve the problems themselves."

South Carolina has also developed a two-track process: Many cases are steered to mediation, which is HR-speak for bringing people together to talk in a controlled climate that doesn't get too legalistic. "The earlier you can catch a dispute, the less positional people become," says Sam Wilkins, assistant director and legal counsel for the Office of Human Resources.

Unfortunately, many governments that have established mediation programs still don't see them used as much as they'd like. "Some employees don't trust it," says Ken Purdy, acting director of the Central Personnel Division in North Dakota.

Innovative approaches to grievances have worked well even in heavily unionized states. Pennsylvania has long been a model here, with grievance administration methods based on those developed in the trucking industry. The Accelerated Grievance Procedure was first implemented more than a decade ago by the Commonwealth and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and is now utilized by three other unions as well. This system requires early on a face-to-face meeting between the individuals involved in the grievance; it also dictates that all supporting evidence be disclosed. With this technique, Pennsylvania has seen a dramatic drop in the number of grievances going to arbitration.

Nationally, of course, many grievances still get caught in a whirlwind that blows them from one bureaucratic level to another until they reach formal arbitration. Given that reality, several states and cities are developing ways to make arbitration less painful. California, for example, uses the Internet to keep its managers informed about the results of arbitrations throughout the state. The idea is to help managers avoid making the same mistakes as their peers. Delaware uses performance measures to make sure staff meets deadlines at each stage of a grievance's process. Now, 95 percent of grievances are resolved within 45 days. Michigan is trying to cut the length of time the appeals process takes by tracking which arbitrators take too long to make decisions. "If they have a bad pattern, we cut them off," says one official.

Perhaps most important, some states are acknowledging that some grievances occur for the most obvious of reasons: Even the best managers mess up from time to time. These states are researching the grievances themselves, to uncover reasons they're filed in the first place. "We're analyzing the current grievances in our files, putting them into our database and spitting them out in groups to analyze patterns," explains Stephen Gulyassy, deputy director for the Office of Collective Bargaining in Ohio.

Based on those patterns, the state is beginning to work with agencies to resolve the basic issues that cause the grievances. Sometimes grievances are filed because of things beyond a government's control, but if there is something lacking in management and the state can identify that then, Gulyassy says, "we can work with that management to come up with the ways to eliminate those disputes so they don't have to become grievances."