One of the darker little corners of state and local human resources departments is the area of grievances. Here, in-house claims are filed by employees when they believe they’ve been treated unjustly by their government employers. Many employees’ claims stem from a belief that they were unfairly denied the chance to work overtime, that their pay is too low, that they have been refused an anticipated bonus or that they have been passed over for promotion.

States and localities set up grievance procedures to avoid the expensive and debilitating lawsuits that could emanate from angry employees who see no other means to settle their problems internally. And although most cities and counties are not overwhelmed by the number of grievances filed, the claims take their toll. “They consume significant amounts of managerial time and correlate with employee turnover rates,” according to a report from the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Government.

While grievances may be annoying, there is important information to be gleaned from analyzing the claims, starting with how often the claims occur and which particular departments or policies produce more than their fair share of complaints. Yet city representatives interviewed couldn’t easily come up with the answer to such basic questions as the number of grievances filed in the most recent year and years past.

The UNC study confirms this observation, reporting that “many survey participants had to dig for the information we requested because it either was unsystematically collected or not collected at all.” Los Angeles representatives, for example, indicated that they have been tracking the data but do not have it aggregated for the whole city, nor do they have a trail that goes back as far as five years. In Houston, city representatives were unable to provide the number of grievances filed prior to the current contract. It seems to us that the city would be far better served if it could see the changes in the total number of grievances from year to year, in order to reduce their quantity in the future.

Some grievance policies are grievances unto themselves. Chapel Hill, N.C., for instance, wasn’t happy with its policy. The grievance process seemed to substitute for a course of action that should have been handled by a conversation at the lowest managerial levels. Under the grievance system in place until recently, if an employee felt that he didn’t, say, have the right safety equipment, and an initial conversation with a supervisor didn’t get him that equipment, the employee had to go through a grievance process that could have as many as five steps, including talking to the supervisor, then the department head, then the manager’s office, then a citizen advisory group (appointed by the town council). That group would hear the grievance and make a recommendation to the manager who would follow the recommendation. “This took a long time when all a person wanted was a piece of equipment,” says Rae Buckley, Chapel Hill’s assistant to the manager for organizational and strategic initiatives.

A new process has been introduced that refines the use of grievances in which a specific employee has been directly mistreated -- someone, for example, who believes he or she has been passed over for a promotion because of racial discrimination. That doesn’t mean that people won’t still push for things like better safety equipment, but they won’t utilize the grievance process to do so.

In most places, the steps in a grievance procedure are similar to those in Chapel Hill, but some governments can take things a step further. In Stafford County, Va., if all else fails, the grievance case can meander all the way up to the circuit court. This is somewhat ironic for an effort designed to keep things out of the courts in the first place.

Fortunately there are solid approaches to make the grievance process more effective. Three cited in interviews with city HR officials and also by the UNC study include:

  • Gather data about grievance claims so that the information can be analyzed to pinpoint problem areas.
  • Refresh the process. When rules stay in place for many years and aren’t reevaluated, they become outmoded. As one assistant city manager told the UNC researchers, “Our grievance policies are based on a 1950s model of organizations that no longer fits.”
  • Train supervisors and managers to deal with complaints. A 2009 study in the Annual Review of Psychology found that better trained managers are more likely to resolve complaints before they get bumped up to official grievance claims.

There’s no great call for reform, but the issue is more important than its low profile suggests. “Grievances are one of the underbellies of local governments,” says Karen Thoreson, president of the Alliance for Innovation, a part of the Local Government Research Collaborative, which funded the UNC study. “No one wants to talk about it. But our research showed us that organizations that take their grievance policies seriously and continue to collaborate with employees to keep them updated will have an improved organizational culture.”