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  • Writer's pictureScarlet Spark Team

How (and Why) to Create a Grievance Procedure for Your Nonprofit

Two cute frogs on a log covered in moss.

Even if you never expect to need it, it’s a good practice to put an employee and volunteer grievance procedure in place at your organization.

What does “grievance” mean in the workplace?

A grievance is a statement of concern about a significant issue that may result in individual or organizational harm. Examples include: harassment, discrimination, bullying, unsafe conditions, or a breach of policy.

Why is it a good idea to have a grievance procedure?

First and foremost, a well-designed grievance system will make it more likely that people flag significant problems that stand in the way of your organization’s mission. When issues that threaten safety and the perception of fairness go unaddressed, employee and volunteer morale and commitment plummet. As a result, productivity declines, retention, and recruitment become difficult, and reputational harm causes a drop in funding. Ultimately, organizations that do not uncover and address employee and volunteer concerns hinder their ability to achieve their ability to help animals.

What’s more, even if no one ever needs to use your grievance process, just having it in place can increase people’s psychological safety, resulting in more meaningful contributions, ideas, and commitment. Put simply: feeling safe unlocks our ability to do our best work.

Why can’t we just invite people to bring up their concerns informally?

In an ideal world, employees and volunteers would raise issues openly and immediately with any relevant individuals. Alas, in the real world, this is rarely the case for all individuals – especially when there is a real or perceived imbalance of power. For example, if people believe they may get fired or limit their chances of getting a promotion by speaking up, many will not take the risk.

What organizational systems help solicit people’s concerns?

For 99% of issues your team faces, the best outlets will likely be some combination of:

  • 1-on-1s: Weekly or biweekly 1-on-1s (here a template we recommend)

  • Retros: Monthly or quarterly retrospectives (here are some retro questions to try)

  • Surveys: Quarterly or biannual engagement survey (learn more about those here)

  • Feedback: Frequent requests for feedback (get some pro-tips here)

  • “Office” hours: Weekly or monthly opportunities to discuss issues with company leaders (e.g., ED, HR leader)

  • Directory: Constantly and easily available reference of who to turn to for what

  • Board access: Contact information for independent board members, with occasional opportunities to interact with the board to establish a relationship

These processes are relatively light-weight and easy to manage as well as participate in. That said, even if you have these systems in place, it is still important to offer an official route people can take to file a formal grievance. This process can serve as a last resort or as people’s go-to for instances where all other paths to share concerns feel too risky.

What are the components of a formal grievance process?

Your formal grievance process should exist for the 1% (or fewer) of issues that feel too dangerous to bring up elsewhere. An effective grievance process generally has the following components. Be sure to work with your legal counsel to define your process in a way that aligns with relevant laws and regulations.

  • Definition: A clear and easily accessible definition of a formal grievance.

  • Expectations: An outline of what the grievance process entails, including how the individual’s confidentiality and privacy will be protected and how quickly people can anticipate a response.

  • Training: An opportunity for all individuals to learn what the grievance process entails. Individuals with HR and leadership roles likely need additional guidance on their responsibilities in the process.

  • Questions: One or more individuals people may contact if they have questions about the process before they use it. (Bonus: Offer a list of common questions and answers.)

  • Non-retaliation: A written policy committing the organization to abstaining from any retaliation or adverse consequences of filing a grievance.

  • Grievance form: A dedicated form or email template people can use to describe their grievance in writing to ensure all relevant information is saved, along with a clear statement of who will receive the form.

  • Alternative contact: An alternative contact or several options in case the individual feels unsafe communicating with the default grievance responder (e.g., another employee, board member, or external HR resource).

  • Acknowledgement: A timely response to the grievance, acknowledging the receipt and clarifying next steps, including the expected timeline of investigation.

  • Discussion: A live meeting with the individual who submitted the grievance to gather more details, ensure the person feels heard, and confirm your understanding.

  • Investigation: A process to look into the situation and all impacted parties, led by an impartial investigator who documents all findings.

  • Resolution: A process to seek a resolution following the investigation such as mediation; change in process, roles, or policies, written commitment; termination of employee who created an unsafe environment. Legal counsel can be especially helpful at this stage. Be sure to document the resolution in writing and clarify the reasoning behind any decisions made or actions taken. (Bonus: Offer an appeal process in case individuals are not satisfied with the outcome.)

  • Follow up: A check-in one to three months following the resolution to learn about the individual’s experience with the process and ensure they feel heard, respected, and supported.

How do I get started?

Depending on your organization’s culture and resources, you might wish to put together a draft of a grievance process then share it with everyone to get their input or you could ask for a small task force of employees to put together their proposal for a procedure. Whatever path you take, it is a good idea to ask for feedback and confirm understanding along the way. When you take an inclusive and collaborative approach, not only does your grievance procedure become better, it also becomes an opportunity to build trust and grow safety across your organization.

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