Employee Grievance Programs: Understanding the Nexus between Workplace Justice, Organizational Legitimacy and Successful Organizations

Article excerpt

Presented at the 2004 Southeastern Conference on Public Administration (SECoPA) in Charlotte, NC

Dedicated to Dr. Don Chu, Dean of the College of Professional Studies, University of West Florida

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.

--James Madison, The Federalist No. 10

The depth and breadth of the discussion and debate about what constitutes a viable employee grievance program is interdisciplinary and complex, and centers on the legal basis of the public employment relationship founded in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution, public law, and customs, usage and mutual understandings between employees and management. (1) It focuses on the tension between management prerogatives and employee rights in the public workplace that "define the rights, obligations, and mutual expectations often evoked in adversarial situations." (2) At issue is the relationship between workplace justice and legitimacy and its effect on organization success. (3)

One side of the debate stresses that formal employee grievance programs and procedures are fundamentally designed to preserve and protect the power of those who govern the organization. (4) From this perspective, organizations are more concerned with the appearance of fairness than actual just outcomes. (5) In this sense grievance programs are designed to afford aggrieved employees procedural due process of law--procedural fairness--"as determined by the structure of the decision process and the interpersonal behavior of the parties who implement the decision." (6) Here workplace justice and organizational legitimacy are founded in mimicking formal legal process and procedure, and the just outcome is a "derivative, a hoped-for-byproduct of impeccable method." (7)

In contrast, the other side of the debate emphasizes organizational communication, interpersonal relationships, and non-adversarial, cooperative problem-solving approaches that make challenging management unnecessary. Thus, management must redefine workplace conflict and use alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques such as consensus-building, cooperative problem solving, negotiation, informal arbitration, and mediation to better facilitate just outcomes, communication and positive perceptions of workplace justice. (8) This encourages employees and supervisors to work in a collaborative environment to solve workplace problems and resolve disputes. The focus of conflict management and resolution is on social process and just outcomes rather than formal, law-like procedural due process. (9) In practice the result is workplace justice and organizational legitimacy are founded in the just outcome rather than the fair procedure. (10) It is within the parameters of the public employment relationship that public organizations develop and implement formal policies and procedures to resolve employees' work related concerns and complaints, generally in the form of formal employee grievance programs.

Formal Employee Grievance Programs

Formal employee grievance programs provide public employees with an internal mechanism to resolve work related disputes or complaints. (11) Their success heavily relies on the degree to which management accepts and administers them professionally. (12) It also depends on workplace justice, as informed by the themes of procedural, distributive, and substantive justice. (13) Therefore, a discussion of employee grievance programs in the public employment context appropriately begins with a brief overview of formal employee grievance procedures designed to ensure that employees receive procedural due process, equitable treatment and fairness in the resolution of their job-related grievances.

Public Sector Grievance Procedures

In the non-unionized public sector employee grievances are generally resolved by an internally managed appeals system or the use of external personnel boards and civil service commissions. …