Public Sector Independent Grievance Systems: Methods and Procedures

By Bohlander, George W. | Public Personnel Management, Fall 1989 | Go to article overview

Public Sector Independent Grievance Systems: Methods and Procedures


Bohlander, George W., Public Personnel Management


Public Sector Independent Grievance Systems: Methods and Procedures(1)

This research examined public sector independent grievance procedures in twenty-two agencies in the Southwest United States. Non-union grievance systems are championed as a way to equitably adjudicate employee problems while additionally fostering agency objectives and lessening the possibility of employee legal suits. Content analysis was used to determine the purpose of grievance programs, grievable issues, employee representation, neutral third-party resolution of cases, and different grievance systems and their methodologies. Based upon study findings, suggestions are offered to implement or improve a current grievance program.

"Learn to accept in silence the minor aggravations, cultivate the gift of taciturnity, and consume your own smoke with an extra draft of hard work, so that those about you may not be annoyed with the dust and soot of your complaints."

Sir William Osler

While public managers would certainly champion the above quote, unfortunately, employee problems, complaints, grievances, and discipline are prevalent employer concerns. The right to speak-up and grieve employment related issues is an accepted part of work-place democracy. Public sector employment policies have been greatly influenced by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which states, "Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

Additionally, the erosion of the employment-at-will principle which argues that employers should not terminate employees without "just cause", and the recent support for the job-as-property doctrine has afforded public employees unmeasured due process rights. The job-as-property doctrine states that the loss of one's employment has such serious consequences that employees should not lose their jobs without the protection of the right of appeal. The job-as-property doctrine does not guarantee employees a permanent right to their jobs. It does, however, place upon public management an obligation to act in a manner that is fair, consistent, and equitable for employees. The outgrowth of these employment safeguards has been the establishment of employee appeals systems.

Nature of the Study

In order to adjust employee concerns, public organizations have traditionally offered one or several appeals procedures to employees. For example, an employee might appeal a disciplinary action to a civil service board or merit commission. A negative decision by this body may be appealed to the courts. Second, public agencies that have collective bargaining contracts with unions or employee associations have formalized grievance procedures specified in the labor agreement.

As a third option, public agencies have implemented nonunion grievance systems or independent grievance systems for the adjudication of specific employee complaints. The growth of independent grievance procedures in recent years reflects employee expectations about fair treatment in the work place.(2) Additionally, the growing encroachment of legal remedies to employees has stirred employer's fears of government intervention or civil liabilities if grievance procedures are not adopted (Balfour, 1984).

While public sector grievance systems have historical antecedents, (i.e., the open door policy), the many positive outcomes gained from these programs contribute to their current attention. However, while studies show that grievance procedures are effective management tools (LoBosco, 1985; Swann, 1981), little is known of these procedures in the public setting. Those studies that do exist generally describe the different types of nonunion grievance systems operable in the private sector (Condor, 1985; McCollum and Norris, 1984). Furthermore, there is little documentation of actual organizational practices of nonunion grievance systems.

Advantages of an Independent Grievance System

Interviews revealed that four major benefits accrue to the public organization when an independent grievance procedure is effectively employed. …

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