The 5-Step Workplace Grievance Process

The process for resolving a workplace grievance between an employer and a union representing its employees usually follows a standard sequence of steps. Typically, a grievance claim over a labor and employment dispute moves up the chain of command of both the union and the employer.

This process doesn’t waive either side’s rights to labor arbitration. Rather, the theory is that the lower the level at which a disagreement can be resolved, the lesser the degree of disruption to the workplace.

The three-part grievance review procedure

Most arbitration agreements provide for multiple grievance processing steps corresponding to the chain of command or levels of review. Three-step procedures are common, but more complex procedures are used by some parties with multiple plants and bargaining units in the interest of consistency in the application of national agreements spanning unit boundaries.

Most contracts require the employer to prepare written responses after each of the processing steps within a specified number of days.

[Download our Matrix for Analyzing and Evaluating a Grievance Claim for a helpful tool to examine the essential components of a case.]


Contracts usually require the parties to observe all processing steps before resorting to arbitration. However, if both parties agree or if it is allowed by the contract, one or more processing steps can be bypassed in certain situations, including those where:

  • The grievance is general in nature and can be resolved only at high union-management levels – so-called policy grievances
  • The dispute arises directly from the failure of one party to follow the grievance procedure
  • The parties waive the pre-arbitration steps because the dispute is of a critical or urgent nature
  • Grievance procedures would be futile

Grievance mediation

Following completion of the grievance processing steps, some contracts provide for an intermediate stage before arbitration: grievance mediation. Grievance mediation refers to a dispute resolution process in which the parties discuss the grievance with a mediator who acts as an impartial third party. The mediator can suggest ways of resolving the dispute but doesn’t make findings of fact and can’t impose a settlement on the parties.

The parties can agree to use mediation on an informal basis for selected grievances, or mediation can be designated in the contract as an alternative to or additional stage prior to arbitration.

Your labor and employment law connection

Labor and employment practitioners play a pivotal role in implementing a workplace grievance process that responds effectively to grievance claims and complies with labor arbitration law. Download our Matrix for Analyzing and Evaluating a Grievance Claim for a simple organizing tool to help you systematically examine all essential components of a case.

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