Challenges and Opportunities with Employee Petitions

For small and medium sized businesses that do not have union representation, or startups who are just establishing ground rules for employee contributions to change, petitions and other types of group consensus activities are growing in popularity. What are the best practices for leadership when managing employee petitions?

Petitions for Positive Change

Employees may develop consensus petitions asking leadership for a change in work environment, policies, or participatory activities. Examples are a petition for a small garden space or walking path on the grounds, or permission to use the workplace for a volunteer activity. When the petition involves employees asking for a change or development that needs to be studied for cost and liability issues, one way to continue the positive benefits of consensus activity is to form a committee of employee leaders to study the issue.

Employee committee work can be informal or formal, and the work specific to initial research, plans, next steps or feasibility studies. The committee should have instructions to make a recommendation to leadership that includes cost, findings, impacts, liability, and other issues. While employees will not have the scope of leadership to understand all the potential consequences of a change, they can contribute significantly to the work involved in even a small change in the workplace for a business.

One of the benefits of giving employees responsibility for the initial feasibility studies will be a greater understanding of the issues involved, as well as team building and employee engagement. Leadership can evaluate how much work time should be allowed for this project, or if the issues should be studied and evaluated on off-duty hours. A member of leadership or HR, depending on the issue involved, can be a group point of contact for expectations and questions. 

Petitions to Redress a Grievance

If the employee petition involved issues that can be considered grievances, and the goal of the petition is asking for redress, leadership need to manage the petition differently. A first evaluation by HR or the point person for employee issues, in a very small business, should determine if the issues should be addressed by current policies and procedures for the grievance. If, as an example, the petition asked for redress for an issue that should be managed by current grievance procedures, the leaders of the petition group should be instructed in how to access the current system.

If the small business does not have an employee handbook and established policies and procedures for grievance, such as civil rights questions, it is essential that those be developed immediately after an employee petition brings an issues to leadership.

An employee petition to redress a grievance can be a discoverable document, so legal and HR should be involved immediately. At the minimum, an independent investigation is critical. A business culture can appear on the surface to be working well, to the benefit of employees, but surface impressions can hide malfeasance. In the situation of a leadership team to want to vigorously an employee petition describing a grievance, both the rights of the accused and accusers should be protected. Following published grievance procedures, re-writing grievance procedures if they are not effective, or independent investigations of the allegations are ways to protect the rights of all involved.