Whistleblowing and grievance complaints – what is the difference?

When employees witness wrongdoing in the workplace, they may consider lodging a complaint. However, there are different types of complaints an employee can lodge. Common but easily confused complaints are whistleblower complaints or personal grievance complaints. What are their differences?

Whistleblower complaints

A whistleblower complaint is lodged by an employee who believes that their employer or co-worker is engaging in illegal or unethical behaviour. For example, an employee may file a whistleblower complaint if they witness fraud, embezzlement, or discrimination in the workplace. The purpose of a whistleblower complaint is to identify and call out misconduct and harm to the community.

Whistleblowers are meant to be protected by law from retaliation by their employers. This means that an employer cannot fire, demote, or otherwise punish an employee for lodging a whistleblower complaint.

Grievance complaints

A grievance complaint is filed by an employee who is dissatisfied with some aspect of their working conditions, such as pay, hours, or working conditions. For example, an employee may file a grievance complaint due to interpersonal conflicts within the workplace, or if they believe they are being paid less than they deserve. The purpose of a grievance complaint is to resolve the dispute between the employee and the employer.

Unlike whistleblower complaints, there are no legislated protections for employees who file grievance complaints. However, they may still qualify for protection if the complaint includes information about misconduct, the entity has breached employment or other laws, the discloser suffers from, or is threatened with detriment, and the discloser seeks legal advice and or representations about the operation of the whistleblower protections.

Key differences

The key difference between a whistleblower complaint and a grievance complaint is the purpose of the complaint. A whistleblower complaint is focused on exposing illegal or unethical behaviour in the workplace and protecting the whistleblower, while a grievance complaint is focused on resolving a dispute between the employee and the employer.

The avenue in which the concerns are raised also differs. The grievance complaint process is usually outlined in the company grievance procedure framework and differs depending on the organisation. It is recommended that whistleblower complaints are raised through an impartial whistleblower program. Both programs also need to coordinate with each other, due to some complaints containing both grievance and unethical/illegal concerns.

Knowing whether your complaint is a whistleblower complaint or a grievance complaint helps ensure the right channel is used to raise or and handle a complaint. Most importantly, knowing the differences allows for the employee to make informed decisions when raising a complaint, allowing for better protections and an understanding of the wider organisational and community implications. The anonymous reporting channel also has an important part to play, if people are genuinely concerned about reprisals.

At PKF, we specialise in managing whistleblower and other types of conduct complaints with the added benefit of an independent whistleblower and conduct complaints management system. Our system also considers the need to sometimes report anonymously, and in a safe environment. If you would like to know more about what we do and how we do it, please see our services here.

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