The informal stage

Remember that the informal stage should never be confused with ‘alternative’ dispute resolution

If you are involved in a potential dispute as a student or employee or as a manager with direct responsibility for the first stage of a process which may lead on into a formal complaint, grievance or disciplinary procedure the informal stage has potential dangers because it tends to be unstructured.

It is easy to make a mistake which can make things worse and complicate the problem or compromise the possibility of a fair hearing later.

 Managers and academic heads of department:

Do not invite someone to a meeting ‘just to have a chat’. Always provide a clear statement of the purpose of the meeting. Send an email or a note requesting a meeting and briefly stating its purpose.

Be careful not to slip from the ‘pastoral’ to the ‘judicial’ during the meeting.

  • Modern HR policies often speak of the importance of offering support to staff who seem to be heading for a disciplinary process. In dealing with disciplinary offences it may be appropriate to ask about the personal circumstances of the member of staff or student. This is often laid down in disciplinary procedures as the correct first step
  • The shift from `encouraging improvement’ to punishments such as disciplinary warnings or dismissal should always be clear. It is only too easy to begin a meeting intending to ask for an explanation of repeated lateness, for example, then to judge the explanation unsatisfactory and then to move into a ‘threatening’ mode. (‘If this happens again you will have a warning on your file’).
  • Remember that a data subject access request may make your emails about the dispute disclosable to those involved and be clear and exact
  • Make it clear who will be present and stick to what you say. A student or member of staff is entitled to be upset and to feel ‘outnumbered’ if you are accompanied without warning by someone from HR or even a note-taker
  • Allow the student or member of staff you have invited to the meeting to bring someone if they wish to do so
  • Your institution may have rules limiting ‘representation’ to colleagues or trade union representatives but be prepared to be more flexible. The important thing is that the meeting should achieve its objective
  •  agree beforehand or on arrival what the role of the ‘supporter’ is to be. For example, it may be
  1. To take notes but not say anything
  2. To join in informally in a constructive discussion
  3. To be a spokesman and `representative’

Students and employees:

If you are invited to a meeting ‘just to have a chat’ ask what the chat will be about.

If you receive such a request, respond and say what you understand the discussion will be about. Do not elaborate or begin to defend yourself in your reply.

Ask if you can bring someone with you.

If the ‘chat’ moves onto something else during the meeting,  ask for an ‘adjournment’ until another time and leave.


Keep records from the beginning. This is not a sign of mutual mistrust. It is common sense and can prevent further disputes about what was said or agreed. Agree the record of the meeting or include both versions is a point is disputed.

Avoid adding unnecessary comments. Expressing the way you feel today may make you look extreme or malicious or unreasonable in an internal hearing, or a tribunal or court case when the documents in the case are likely to be considered.


Tips for meetings