Alarming insights into the grievance process available to employees of the Football Association emerged from an 18 October session of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Convened primarily to examine the treatment of England striker Eniola Aluko, the hearing focused on her experience of the FA’s grievance process in the wake of allegations she made against the squad’s former coach, Mark Sampson. According to Aluko, Sampson had made distasteful comments of a racial nature to her in 2015, prompting her to raise a complaint through the relevant FA channels.

As Aluko told MPs, her career in the national side was effectively snuffed as a result of bringing the complaint: despite being available for selection since May last year, she has so far not been called back to action on behalf of her country.

In one, particularly shocking answer, Aluko alleged that FA chief Martin Glenn had asked her to sign a statement saying that the body was not institutionally racist, in order to secure the second chunk of a two-part compensation payment to which she was entitled in the wake of internal FA proceedings.

Asked whether the FA had made any attempt to patch up its relationship with her following the internal probe – plus two, subsequent inquiries – Aluko said: “Quite the contrary. I feel the FA’s sole agenda has been to protect its own reputation while making insinuations that I am lying, [and] leaking reports to journalists about things I hadn’t had the opportunity to see. So no, there has been no attempt to build bridges or to show me a duty of care as a centrally contracted player. That has compounded the sense of isolation I felt.”

What should leaders learn from this debacle about how grievance procedures must be managed for maximum effectiveness, ensuring that the complainant receives fair, empathic treatment?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “No matter how well you’re supported by your trade union, employee association, colleagues, friends or family, taking out a grievance is a terribly lonely place to be. Even if the grievance concerns just one particular person in the organisation, it’s still a matter of the individual taking on the mighty machinery of their workplace’s relevant procedures, which themselves can be quite onerous.”

Cooper points out: “In his new book Managing Conflict, David Liddle calls for a new era of, and I quote, ‘Dialogue, empathy, understanding and flow – a new, progressive and pluralist paradigm for managing conflict.’ And that, essentially, is a summed up by the word ‘mediation’: a more open way of dealing with grievances.

“But of course, that shouldn’t detract from the uncomfortable notion that these cases are still going to happen. Mediation may be a solid approach to conflict resolution – but what we really want to achieve is precisely the reverse of scenarios in which individuals have such a sense of injustice that they’re prepared to venture into that lonely place and take on what they consider to be unfair practices.”

She explains: “Much as we discussed the Harvey Weinstein furore in a recent blog, we need to instil a climate in organisations whereby bullying, sexism and racism are so utterly unacceptable that, if they do occur, they will instantly stand out as egregious anomalies, generating only the most negative reactions across the entire staff base. However, cultures cannot be changed overnight, and people will still behave inappropriately – maybe, to be generous to them, down to a lack of understanding or awareness on their part.”

That, Cooper adds, is another area in which mediation may help: “Not only will it avert the adversarial collision course that aggrieved employees often feel they’re on when they take on their employers – it may also contribute to a bedrock of understanding that will prevent such situations from recurring in the future. The process will uncover learnings that the organisation can then implement as policy.”

For further thoughts on mediation and managing workplace conflict, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of Eniola Aluko from her playing days with St Louis Athletica courtesy of Wikipedia (public domain)