Workforce Wednesday: Looking at Antiquated Personnel Policies and Revamping Them

ARTICLE | Aug 18, 2016

Back to Red Tape to Green Tape

As we continue our #WorkforceWednesday series, diving into the issues facing the local government workforce, we wanted to take a look at HR and personnel policies. More particularly, antiquated policies. We are interested in hearing about antiquated policies your organization has uncovered and revised to fit into the contemporary landscape. While you think about examples to share, we wanted to return to the first report that came out of the Local Government Research Collaborative (LGRC) that seems especially pertinent today.

In the Fall of 2015, the Local Government Research Collaborative (LGRC) released a report and subsequent webinar, Red Tape to Green Tape, that looked at why grievance policies are important and the impact they can have on all levels of an organization. What particularly makes this relevant to this month's WorkforceWednesday topic? Primarily the fact that the research showed most organizations surveyed had grievance policies that were nine or more years older, which is significant because newer policies are perceived as more effective. Take a moment to reintroduce yourself to the report (download here) and webinar summary, and leave us your feedback in the comments below or in the KN.

Grievance policies; your enthusiasm can be felt BUT don’t stop reading!  Grievance policies are important to local government organizations given the rise in legal protections for employees, the role of grievance in indicating managerial effectiveness, and the role they play in giving employees a voice in adverse employment decisions.  The Local Government Research Collaborative contracted for research on this topic with the University of North Carolina- School of Government; principal researcher Leisha Dehart-Davis. And through a webinar last year, we dived deeper into Dehart-Davis’s findings and implications for local governments. 

Answering the “Why”

Dehart-Davis kicked off the webinar sharing five reasons why grievance policies are important.  First, grievance policies are a way for local government to manage legal risk. Grievance policies involve an investigation process for when an employee believes they have been adversely treated.  The process surfaces information that will tell you the extent your organization was at fault, build a case to prove otherwise or take steps to address these issues managerially.  Second, grievance policies allow you to track data across the organization so you can identify managerial and department hotspots that you should be addressing.  Third, grievance policies are important to symbolize fairness; for employees to see the organization as being willing to listen. Furthering on this and the fourth reason why grievance policies are important, is employee voice.  It gives the employees an opportunity to make their concerns known.  And last, Dehart-Davis discussed the importance of potential conflict resolution.  If you have a process in place that brings together managers and employees you are going to increase odds of getting past the conflict.  But does the data suggest this is true?

With the importance of grievance policies clarified, Dehart-Davis set out to answer these research questions in her study:

  • How common are grievance policies and rates?
  • How are grievance policies designed?
  • What factors influence grievance rates?
  • How do grievances affect local government organizations?

She studied North Carolina Cities and Counties, through surveys and interviews, due to their variation in size and structure. And the UNC-School of Government has close working relationships in North Carolina that provided access into these localities. 

Most Important Findings and Implications for Local Government
Eight key findings and implications were shared during her presentation. 

  1. Grievances are rare but costly.  The research shows between 1-2% of respondents grieve each year; some didn’t have any grievances while one city reported a 21% grievance rate.  While the grievances were low, the research shows they are very time consuming and emotionally draining for managers and employees.  On average it takes four weeks to solve a grievance. 
  2. Grievances correlate with turnover.  The higher the local government grievance rate the higher their turnover rate.  Turnover is costly for local governments. 
  3. Grievance outcomes tend to uphold management decisions.  On average 78% end in favor of management rather than the employee.  This indicates grievances are not a form of employee voice, more a management of legal risk.
  4. Well-designed grievance policies led to better management decisions.  It’s important to invest time in policy design and involve stakeholders.
  5. Grievance policies are sometimes not understood. Grievance policies are complicated and difficult to understand. Simplify grievance policies and communicate them clearly to both employees and supervisors.
  6. Training correlates with department resolved grievances and upheld management decisions.  The more training local governments offer the more likely grievances will resolve at a lower level of the organization. Training is form of risk management and the investment made in workforce will ultimately pay us back.
  7. New grievance policies are perceived as more effective.   On average survey respondents indicated their policy was nine years of age.  Grievance policies should be revised periodically; updating every three to five years.
  8. Often grievance data is not collected.  This is a missed opportunity to understand your organization.

What Should I Do with This Research?

Dehart-Davis concluded her presentation by sharing some insights to how she would respond to the research findings if she were a manager for a day.   

  • Update grievance policy. If your policy is five years old proceed with updating; and if three years old think about how well it’s working.  There is a correlation between age of the policy and its effectiveness.
  • Minimize grievances by creating a great workplace.  Invest in training to build a workplace that your employees want to come to everyday.  This includes a meaningful employee survey process, a performance evaluation system, and effective supervisory training.  
  • Create an HR dashboard.  Consider having real time data on turnover, disciplinary actions, and rates of grievances across departments.  
  • Conduct green tape evaluation of grievance policies.  What is the policy’s purpose?  Is it doing what we think it is doing?  Is it being consistently applied?  It is being understood by employees and supervisors alike?  
  • Rename to appeals process. The word Grievance itself sets up adverse relationships between managers and employees. 

Two panelists, Ted Voorhees, City Manager, Fayetteville, North Carolina and James Jayne, County Manager, Navajo County, Arizona, responded to Dehart Davis presentation with implications for their organizations.

Voorhees discussed Fayetteville’s personnel ordinance that lays out their grievance policy.  He indicated that this is not a recommended best practice and Fayetteville is currently rewriting their personnel ordinance and replacing with updated policies.  Additionally, Voorhees added the formal grievance process is about adverse personnel actions and there are many other ways to talk about personnel issues.  Fayetteville is putting in place better training, pushing to institutionalize employee surveys and give employees a voice. 

Jayne shared Navajo County is operating with a legislative lense rather than creating a forum for conversions, which includes listening to employees.   Navajo last updated their policy in 2008.  They have been prompted by the report, creating a team to move forward with additional policy updates. This will include renaming the policy to a more constructive name. Furthermore, the report highlighted the importance of training during onboarding and providing other professional development opportunities, including better training for supervisors. 

Jayne concluded by saying, “it’s about creating a better and more consistent conversation between employees and supervisors to strengthen relationships and build trust.”

To access the complete report visit this link.

About the Local Government Research Collaborative: In early 2013, 21 local governments and three universities joined together with the Alliance for Innovation, the International City/County Management Association, and the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University to establish the Local Government Research Collaborative (LGRC). The LGRC is developing and funding an actionable research agenda that addresses significant issues confronting local governments.  For more information on the LGRC contact Toni Shope, Strategic Initiatives Director, Alliance for Innovation,

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