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Grievance claims do little to relieve a worker's plight, so why bother with grievance systems at all, study asks

February 1, 2004

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Better alternatives: talks between disputants and more worker say on the job

At a time when a scarcity of jobs makes quitting a scary prospect, what options are there for a worker who feels unfairly treated by an employer or supervisor? File a grievance? Although originally championed by unions as a means to protect workers, grievance systems have been found by many studies to worsen the plight of complainants by calling unwanted attention to them or by provoking outright retaliation from a supervisor.

Yet, according to a study in the Feb./Mar. 2004 issue of the Academy of Management Journal, filing a grievance does not markedly worsen a disgruntled worker's plight. What pushes an unhappy employee to look for a new job or to malinger in performing the old one is primarily the fact of being mistreated in the first place.

"There was no significant difference in exit-related withdrawal between employees who experienced mistreatment and filed a grievance and those who experienced mistreatment but did not file a grievance," conclude the study's authors Wendy R. Boswell of Texas A&M University and Julie B. Olson-Buchanan of California State University, Fresno.

But, if a formal complaint does not make matters worse for an employee, neither does it make things better, even though grievance systems, the authors note, were "originally designed or touted for that purpose."

"Given that grievance systems do not appear to serve their original purpose, a question to consider is should organizations keep these systems," Boswell and Olson-Buchanan write. A better, if more challenging, alternative for companies would be to give workers "opportunities for proactive voice through use of problem-solving teams, employee participation in decision-making and labor-management committees."

Adds Boswell: "By the time you get to a grievance, it may be too late to have any real effect."

The study's findings derive from answers to a survey by 384 employees of a public university, about two thirds of them female and about three fourths represented by a union. Respondents were asked whether they had experienced unfair treatment at work during the past year, what the nature of the mistreatment was, and whether they had filed a grievance. Their responses were analyzed with regard to two indicators of employee discontent -- 1) exit-related withdrawal, assessed by respondents' job-search activities as well as their stated interest in quitting; and 2) work withdrawal behavior, gauged by increases in various forms of malingering, such as absences from work when not really sick, leaving work early, letting others do one's tasks, and making excuses to get out of work.

In their analysis, the authors controlled for a number of other factors that might affect the likelihood of employees to quit their job or slack off, such as tenure, loyalty, supervisor support, and union membership.

In all, about 35 percent of respondents reported being mistreated, of whom slightly more than one fifth had filed grievances. Boswell and Olson-Buchanan found that, as expected, mistreated workers were more likely than others to be looking for another job or to express interest in doing so, although they were no more likely to slack off. But to the authors' surprise, mistreated workers who had filed a grievance were neither significantly more nor less likely than non-filers to be engaged in either exit-related withdrawal or work withdrawal.

The professors also found a significant increase in malingering among workers who reported some kind of personalized mistreatment, such as being embarrassed by a supervisor, but little or no increase among employees who felt themselves victimized by unfair organizational policies. There was no difference between the groups, though, in their propensity to file a grievance.

If filing grievances appears of little benefit to workers, why do grievance systems persist? A major reason, Olson-Buchanan believes, is as a way for companies to forestall unionization, by providing an outlet for worker complaints that has been consistently popular with unions. "It is ironic," she says, "that an activity vigorously promoted by unions has become a favorite means for companies to keep unions out."

At the same time, the professors add, there are growing signs that companies and workers are seeking alternatives to traditional grievance systems, in which disputes move stepwise up the company chain of command. "A more proactive approach," they write, "would encourage informal grievance discussions...directly between disputants."

Even better than improved means of dispute resolution, the authors maintain, are systems that avert unfair treatment in the first place by increasing workers' say in day-to-day operations. This can range from something as old-fashioned as a suggestion box to new forms of work organization that increase the amount of control employees have over their work. While not widespread, Boswell says, this approach can show "pockets of success." She cites Boeing as a major corporation that has begun to move in this direction, in part by establishing a director of employee involvement who reports directly to the CEO.

The Academy of Management Journal, a peer-reviewed publication now in its 47th year, is published every other month by the academy, which, with close to 14,000 members in 90 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, the Academy of Management Executive, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

Media Coverage:
Chicago Tribune. Worker involvement called a grievance beater. (Thursday, November 18, 2004).
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News. Worker involvement called a grievance beater. (Thursday, November 18, 2004).

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