Grievance Processes: Research, Rhetoric and Directions for New Zealand

By Walker, Bernard; Hamilton, R. T. | New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online), September 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Grievance Processes: Research, Rhetoric and Directions for New Zealand


Walker, Bernard, Hamilton, R. T., New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)


Abstract

Individual-level conflict is a central aspect of contemporary employment relations. The literature is somewhat fragmented, focusing on certain aspects of grievances and dominated by North American writing. The implications for New Zealand are explored and compared with local research which has been driven largely by policy and operational needs. At a time when political debate over grievance laws is once again intensifying, three main areas emerge as priorities for future New Zealand research: a focus on the decision-making processes of employers and employees; what happens in the early stages of within-company resolution; and the merits of alternative dispute resolution procedures.

Introduction

This article provides an overview of the literature concerning employment grievances, relating this to the New Zealand setting and defining an agenda for further research. In the process we point to the disconnection in New Zealand between the political lobbying and the shortage of evidence-based findings. Given the breadth of this topic however, we have selected the most salient areas for discussion. Individual-level outcomes are explored, but not organisational-level outcomes such as productivity and organisational performance where there are fewer clearly established findings. We also give only brief coverage to post-settlement employment as this is less common in this country. The timeframe of the discussion covers research from the mid1980s, since earlier literature was less well developed (Bemmels and Foley, 1996), while the radical changes affecting both the internal and external contexts of organisations mean that earlier findings may no longer be relevant (Kaminski, 1999; Lipsky, Seeber and Fincher, 2003).

Individual-level conflict is a central aspect of modern employment relations. Recent decades have seen marked increases in the volume of formal, individual-level employment disputes across countries. The USA has experienced a "litigation explosion" of discrimination complaints and lawsuits (Lipsky et al., 2003: 54), with wrongful discharge litigation becoming one of the nation's premier growth industries (Feuille and Delaney, 1992: 201). Similarly, in the UK the number of employment tribunal applications more than trebled between 1988 and 1996 (Burgess, Propper and Wilson, 2001), a pattern mirrored in New Zealand with a major increase in personal grievance claims during the 1990s (May, Walsh, Thickett and Harbridge, 2001). Some writers suggest that individual-level disputes may now represent a more accurate indicator of organisational conflict than traditional collective action (Knight and Latreille, 2000).

The handling of individual-level disputes involves balancing justice for both sides, providing suitable protections for employees while at the same time supporting the functioning of organisations. It is also highly politicised. The New Zealand debate involves lobbying from employer groups and unions, and in recent years the issue has attracted media attention with employer allegations that the current system serves as a "gravy train" (EMA Northern, 2006a; 2009b). The recently elected National-led government introduced a 90 day probationary period restricting entitlement to grievance protections from early 2009, and has announced its intention to further review personal grievance procedures, intimating the likelihood of further legislative change as a response to employer criticisms.

Background and Context

The term "grievance" is defined as "a mechanism for aggrieved employees to protest and seek redress from some aspect of their employment situation" (Feuille and Delaney, 1992: 189). Any discussion needs to acknowledge the significant differences across countries in terms of legal provisions, structures and systems. One approach, exemplified by the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, follows European countries by developing extensive statutory individualrights protections, with enforcement and dispute resolution through national labour courts or employment tribunals. …

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