Suggestion and Grievance Systems:
An Intervention Summary
Author: Victor McCraw
March 28, 2021
Suggestion and Grievance Systems may seem like polar opposite workplace performance interventions. This Intervention Summary explains how both contribute to employees’ voice, and when properly managed, boost workplace improvement and innovation.
A suggestion system is a formal process administered by an employer to encourage and facilitate the contribution of “constructive ideas for improving the organization in which they work” (Milner et al., 1995, as cited in Lasrado et al., 2016, p. 316).
Suggestion systems are one of the oldest tools used to harness the creativity of employees, with recorded use of a suggestion “box” as far back as 1721 (Lasrado et al., 2016, p. 318). Today, the employee suggestion system is a tool widely used by employers to elicit employees’ creative ideas (p. 316).
The primary goal of a suggestion system is to harvest ideas for organizational performance and work process improvement from the employees who are actually doing the work. The most effective suggestion systems are accessible and versatile. They “receive suggestions relating to any improvement and not necessarily relating to saving costs,” which benefit both employees and their employers (Lasrado et al., 2014, p. 2; Lasrado et al., 2015, p. 441).
Historically, grievance systems were mainly functions of unionized organizations, but over the past three decades, “grievance procedures and variants thereof have spread widely among non-union companies” (Lewin, 2014, p. 282). An estimated two thirds of non-union US companies have grievance systems in place (Lewin, 2008a; Colvin et al., 2006; Bryson et al., 2013, as cited in Lewin, 2014, p. 282).
The primary goal of a grievance system is to effectively manage employee grievances. And “grievance management is all about how well the problems are addressed (and solved)” (Gomathi, 2014, p. 20), or at least resolved “to mutual satisfaction of both the employees and the managers” (Obiekwe & Uchechi, 2019, p. 5). According to Scarpello, (1995, as cited in Assafuah, 2017), “an effective [grievance] procedure helps management discover and correct problems in operations before they cause serious trouble” (p. 10). Many workplace grievances can be resolved informally (Lewin, 2014, p. 283); those that cannot may require a formal grievance system to resolve. Common private industry workplace grievances are related to “contract[s], work rule or regulation, policy or procedure, health and safety regulation, past practice, changing the cultural norms unilaterally, individual victimization, wage, bonus, etc.” (Gomathi, 2014, p. 20).
Both suggestion and grievance systems are closely related to a more general construct called “Employee Voice.” Employee voice is a term which encompasses employee/employer relations and communication from the perspective of employees’ ability to initiate day-to-day information sharing, collaboration, and any number of productive, interactive activities. Whereas employee suggestion and grievance systems have relatively long histories, “the concept of an employee exercising voice in an employment relationship is of relatively recent origin” (Lewin, 2014, p. 281). Employee voice is often associated with grievances, but “this approach limits the conceptualization of the term. Voice can be utilized in making constructive suggestions for change and recommending reforms in standard procedures adopted by the organization” (Ahmad et al., 2017, p. 81). According to Morrison et al. (2011, as cited in Ahmad et al., 2017), employee voice is “the articulation of ideas, opinions, and suggestions with the intention of improving departmental or organizational functioning” (p. 80). The collective contributions of suggestions, grievances and employee voice to organizational performance are shown in Figure 1.
Application and Process Steps for Use
Figure 1. The Suggestion System and Grievance System steps in relation to Employee Voice and organizational performance
The suggestion process works best in an open collaborative culture. Steps of a suggestion system vary. But generally, in addition to idea submission and collection, steps also include idea evaluation and implementation (Bäckström & Bengtsson, 2019, p. 476; Lasrado et al., 2014, p. 1). Rewards and recognition are motivating aspects of good suggestion systems, and more advanced programs may “even provide feedback on rejected suggestions” (Lasrado et al., 2015, p. 440). The four general steps for the suggestion process which appear in Figure 1 are explained in Table 1.
Table 1. Suggestion Process Steps
The grievance process, like the suggestion process, works best in a “culture of candor” which fosters “an environment where employees trust employers enough to voice complaints” (Hirschman, 2008, para. 8). Like suggestion processes, grievance processes may vary greatly, but usually include two or three steps of progressive evaluation and review, culminating with some sort of settlement or arbitration and resolution. The four general steps for the grievance process which appear in Figure 1 are explained in Table 2.
Table 2. Grievance Process Steps
Initial, continuous, and culminating feedback is essential for the suggestion and grievance system success. Feedback is vital to sustain suggestion systems (Lasrado et al., 2014, p. 9), and necessary to prevent grievance scalation (Hirschman, 2008, para. 35) while promoting future engagement (Assafuah, 2017, p. 48).
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