Handling employee grievances right

Sumathi V Selvaretnam 28 Jan 2013

The importance of effective employee grievance handling was thrust into the spotlight recently, when close to 200 SMRT bus drivers from China held an illegal strike, disgruntled over their salaries and living conditions. The workers had refused to board a shuttle that was to take them to work from their dormitory. Four workers who instigated the strike were eventually prosecuted.

The incident prompted the Singapore National Employers’ Federation (SNEF) to issue a five-page advisory on handling employee grievances.

“It is unfortunate that SNEF has to make use of this incident to highlight to employers the importance of having proper employee grievance handling procedures and processes,” said Stephen Lee, President, SNEF, in a press statement. He added that good employer-employee relations at the company level were the foundation of strong and effective tripartism. “Without responsible employers, it is not possible to have sustainable industrial peace and harmony, which is Singapore’s hallmark.”

In addition to the advisory, SNEF recommended that employers: go beyond the symptoms to analyse root causes of grievances; be proactive in seeking employee perceptions of workplace issues; and promote positive workplace cultures. Lee called upon employers to review their employee engagement processes to strengthen employer-employee relations.

The illegal strike also pointed out the importance of harmonious labour relations. “The strike should not have happened. It happened because management, union and workers did not work closely enough,” said a spokesperson from the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) in an email response to HRM’s questions. The incident could have been avoided if all three partners worked together, but now that it has happened, we all learned the right lessons, he added.

“Employee grievance handling is important and it is crucial to handle it well and properly so that work performance is not affected but more so, the person who is aggrieved can have access to the proper channels to bring the case up for management’s notice,” said the NTUC spokesperson.

Ho Meng Kit, CEO of the Singapore Business Federation said that HR has an important role to play. “In a tight labour market, it is in companies’ best interest to uphold enlightened and fair HR policies and practices to retain talent. It is also incumbent on employees to use proper channels to raise their work grievances. A harmonious employer-employee relationship fosters trust, loyalty and benefits for all.”

The incident has served as a wake-up call for employers. Han’s Food and Beverage plans to share the SMRT episode as a case study to all staff during its next operations meeting, said its deputy general manager Gan Yee Chin. “The HR department will send more staff, especially outlet managers, to attend a Tripartite training workshop to improve their skills in handling unhappy staff. We will also be conducting employee perception surveys regularly to gauge our work climate.”

Employee unions are also stepping things up. “We definitely want to increase our awareness of what the unions can do for foreign workers. To engage this group more proactively, we will step up our recruitment efforts to get more to join the unions,” said the NTUC spokesperson.

The NTUC plans to ask unions with a large number of foreign workers to share their best practices. “We will also want to beef up our labour-management relations and get employers to do their part too – to see the union as their partner and work with us to ensure that all workers, be they local or foreign, get fair terms and treatment,” the spokesperson said.


Recommendations by SNEF

•        Adopt or adapt the various employee grievance handling models and examples referred to in the Advisory (see: SNEF website).

•        Ensure the procedures are easy to understand and have easily accessible contact points.

•        Provide timelines for resolution, avenues for appeals, and alternative third party channels for advice, conciliation, mediation, or arbitration.

•        Communicate the procedures to employees in languages they understand.

•        Ensure all involved, especially HR, supervisors and line managers, are given adequate training to deal with employee grievances.


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