Senior Executives Association

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Senior Executives Association (SEA) is the professional association for career members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) and equivalent positions. SEA is not only the voice of the SES through a strong advocacy program, it empowers senior leaders across government by providing the tools, resources and connections they need to succeed in the 21st century.

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Working a Grievance

Analyzing a grievance and putting together a response is an essential contract administration skill.

Supervisors and managers serving as deciding officials at a step in the grievance procedure should have all available relevant information before making a decision. Getting that information can be difficult. Here are some thoughts on reviewing grievances and drafting replies. The general information here is also applicable to other common gripes, complaints and appeals.

Reviewing a Grievance Technically

There are some threshold issues to get out of the way. First, look at the grievance for timeliness and whether the employee is in the bargaining unit. Also be sure that the topic is grievable as the subject of grievance may be excluded by law, regulation or the parties’ agreement. While Federal Labor Relations Authority’s case law requires that management answer a grievance, the answer is easy if the matter is not grievable for one of the above reasons. I think one sentence grievance decisions are fairly simple to write e.g., “Your grievance was untimely filed” or “You are not eligible to file a grievance as you were excluded from the bargaining unit by FLRA UNIT DECISION CASE CITE” or “Your grievance alleged you are improperly classified, this is not a grievable matter pursuant to 5 U.S. Code 7121(c)(5) or 5 U.S. Code 7103 (a)(14)(B). “

Also look at the specifics of a grievance. If the violation cannot be discerned from the grievance, deny it as lacking a basis that could be determined.

Reviewing the Merits of a Grievance

In looking at merits, we screen to define the alleged violation. Is there a claimed breach of a contract requirement, breach of past practice or violation of law, rule or regulation?  Nail down the claimed violation by exact chapter and verse as well as the evidence needed to assess whether a violation took place.

With regard to disciplinary grievances, what was the rule violated that supplied the basis for imposing discipline?  Did the employee know the rule? Can we prove the underlying facts? Was the discipline progressive? Was the penalty appropriate? Was the employee treated fairly and equitably?  How does the penalty compare to others for like offenses?

We should also examine what the grievant wants. Why do they want it?

Do they deserve any relief? What is their justification?

Requesting Information From The Union

I've compiled a list of questions to ask the grievant or union representative in any meeting you have with them about the grievance. Alternatively, if you are at step two or above, require the lower level step officials to ask these questions before the matter gets to you and to document the answers.

Drafting a Decision

What should be in a grievance decision? Nail down the grievance you are answering. Union grievances often grow as they rise through the procedure. Preserve the later argument that the written grievance is exactly as narrow as it was written. Always cite the contract. If you plan to deny the grievance, remember it is likely to go to the next step so provide a reason and any citation that directly applies whether legal, regulatory or contractual. Don’t overwrite the reply.  Short is good.  Shorter is better.

If it’s a disciplinary case, make sure the answer tracks the decision imposing the discipline.

Making Deals

Avoid giving partial relief as the grievant may take it and move on looking for more. If resolution is an option, be sure that any deal results in dropping the grievance. Think very carefully about trading one grievance for another. We may not only lose the moral high ground, but find the union developing bogus grievances for the purpose of developing trading items.

More to come in future articles on this issue.


Bob Gilson conducts training for Federal Agencies and represents them as a chief negotiator in contract bargaining.  He may be reached at


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Tags: Managers Corner, performance management, unions, grievances, Bob Gilson, contracts

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