Be ready for the big one

9th June 2000 at 01:00
Staff grievances are, fortunately, rare. But if governors are not prepared, they can turn into messy and expensive affairs. Jane Phillips offers a guide.

YES - it could happen to you, and no - it is not an area that you can afford to get wrong.

Happily, there is a low risk of being involved, as a governor, in arbitrating staff grievances. But if you are, it is imperative that you conduct the process in a way that is fair and is seen to be fair. This is one of those governor responsibilities which carries a high penalty if not carried out correctly. So thorough preparation, long before you have a suspicion that you will need to use your grievance procedure, is the key to a successful outcome.

The governing body must establish procedures for giving staff the opportunity to seek redress over grievances related to their employment and must take steps to make the procedures known to staff.

Most governing bodies will have adopted in its entirety the model provided by their education authority. There is much sense in this approach - the LEA will have consulted the teacher and headteacher associations and will be more inclined to support a governing body which has followed its advice.

However, many governing bodies then forget to review these procedures, leaving them to gather dust until the fateful day when they are needed. Regular review should ensure that governors are familiar with the procedures and that they are fit for purpose and conform to the rules of natural justice.

The grievance procedure is primarily for the benefit of staff. Its purpose is to secure justice, remove a cause for complaint andor solve a conflict. It does not aim to establish guilt or apportion blame. A staff member may bring a grievance against a colleague, a subordinate, their manager, a governor or the governing body.

It is vital that there is an informal stage as well as formal stages to the procedure. When a person raises a grievance, emotions will probably be running high and relationships will have hit a low point. In this situation, it is much easier to find a solution by informal discussion with an unbiased mediator. This mediator may well be a trusted governor. In serious cases, for instance where there is a joint grievance, it may be appropriate to engage an external mediator in whom all parties can have confidence.

In order to be trusted by all parties, the mediator will need certain qualities. They must be able to observe confidentiality, to question and to listen without prejudice and be both empathetic and objective. They should also be able to pull the parties towards a solution.

Even at the informal stage, the parties may feel that they wish to have the support of a friend, a trade union or professional asociation representative. Natural justice will not be served if this is refused, but the position of the representative must be clarified as a purely supportive one. If one party has indicated that they will be accompanied by a union representative, other parties must be made aware of this.

If the informal stage is handled sensitively and effectively, and all parties feel that their view has been listened to and understood, and there is an agreed outcome, the grievance will not escalate to the formal stage. Of course, the agreed outcome must be acted upon - otherwise the process will be seen by the aggrieved as a whitewash, thus exacerbating the situation.

Grievance procedures usually have three formal stages; a formal interview, a hearing, and an appeal hearing. If you reach the formalities, it is usually sensible to take advice from your LEA. If the grievance is against the head, a governor or the governing body, the interview should be with the chair or vice-chair of governors. If the matter is not resolved, there should be a hearing conducted by a panel of three or more governors (with the usual proviso of no previous involvement).

Interestingly, if the grievance is against the whole governing body, there is no one to hear the grievance except the governing body. This situation is not ideal - but it's all we have.

If the grievance is still not resolved, the employee can take it to an appeal hearing which will run along the same lines as the initial hearing. If the appeal is against the decision of a panel of governors, it is best heard by the remainder of the governing body. If it is against the decision of the governing body, one option is for it to be considered by a panel of nominees of the governing body and a lesser number of trade union or professional association representatives nominated by the employee.

If the appeal hearing does not resolve the situation, the next stage may be an employment

tribunal with the governing body as the respondent. Even if you behave impeccably, this could be the outcome. I know of a governing body who, with substantial support from their LEA, successfully defended a case at tribunal. In this case, the teacher was, quite evidently, pursuing a


This does somewhat focus the mind. Regular review of procedures and emphasis on resolution at the informal stage should ensure that you are not required to attend an employment tribunal - making it worth the effort.

Jane Phillips is an occupational psychologist and governor of two schools, who has mediated in grievances. Grievance procedures are explained in more detail in the National Association of Governors and Managers' paper 48, staff discipline and grievance procedures,tel: 0121 643 5787

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