Problems at work - a guide for members

  • What happens if you have a problem at work?
  • What can you expect from your union?
  • What can you expect from your representative and how can you help them bring your case to an acceptable conclusion?

This guidance covers:

Talking to your union representative (rep)

Your local union rep is your starting point for getting help from PCS. We cannot stress strongly enough how important it is to talk to your union representative as soon as you can.
Often members feel that they can sort things out on their own.

Whilst it may be helpful to approach management to seek an early solution to a problem, try to resolve the issue without proper advice can sometimes cause more problems.

When your PCS representative gets a case to deal with, they will explore the full range of options that are open to you. Even if they are inexperienced, or haven’t dealt with a case like yours before, they have many sources of advice and support available to them.

Your PCS representative will agree a way forward with you and help you achieve the best possible outcome. In simple terms, approach your PCS representative at the earliest opportunity to enable them to have the most scope for dealing with your case.

Do not see contacting your PCS representative as your last resort but as your first response.


What if I am not a member?

PCS is a membership organisation and is funded almost entirely from members' contributions that pay for the insurance that it provides in times of difficulty. If you are reading this and you are not a member then you should join today, and get the benefit of that insurance.

If you are considering joining but are already looking for help because of a problem at work you may find that your local representatives will still be prepared to give you some advice and help.

However, you should understand that you may not be able to get assistance for things that happened before you became a member.

Find out about joining PCS today.


Finding your local PCS representative (rep)

Every member of PCS is a member of a local union branch and you should receive information from your local branch on a regular basis.

Some branches and workplaces will have a PCS notice board and you should be able to find details of your local PCS reps on that – or on PCS posters that may be displayed in your workplace.

If you can't find out who your local rep is contact PCS headquarters or your local PCS office. 

If possible, try to have your membership number available, as this will make it easier to put you in touch with the right person.


The initial meeting

Except for very straightforward cases, where we may be able to give you an immediate opinion, your PCS rep will arrange a time when you can meet with them to discuss your issues.

Remember that the majority of PCS reps split their time between working for the employer and doing union work. This may mean that there is a slight delay between you making an initial contact and being able to meet up with you.

If your case in genuinely urgent then he/she should be able to give you time but if it can wait for a short while then you may be able to arrange to speak or meet when it is convenient to both of you.

If you are contacting your rep because you are being called to a disciplinary or grievance meeting with your manager and you have a statutory right to be accompanied to that meeting. The law allows you and your rep to suggest an alternative date, if the original date is at a time when the rep can't make it.

Any alternative date has to be not more than five working days after the original date, by law, though some employers will allow a greater flexibility in this.

You should expect the initial meeting with your representative to be held in private and without interruption.

The meeting between you and your PCS representative will be confidential - they won't talk about your case with anyone unless you agree, other than to seek further guidance on your behalf.


At the initial meeting - Explaining your case

You should prepare your case thoroughly before you meet your union rep– you will know all of the facts of your case while your rep will almost certainly be hearing all of it for the first time. Make sure you are clear about what the issue is about.

Bring copies of all the relevant papers, minutes and letters pertaining to your case and make sure that these papers are in chronological order.

It may be worth preparing a time-line or other notes so that you can explain the issues that you are concerned about as clearly as possible and have something in writing explaining these that you can leave with your rep.

It's important that you're fully open with your rep. If they don’t have all the facts they can’t plan the best way to approach the case.

For example, if you're being accused of something and you deny it to your rep, when you know you did what you're being accused of, your rep will be severely compromised in any subsequent meeting if the employer has clear evidence of your conduct.

You would be in a stronger position if you admit the conduct and allow your rep to concentrate on explaining why things happened, rather than trying to deny it.

Please be aware that, if you reveal to your representative that you have committed certain acts, which might amount to gross misconduct, they may have to pass that information on to the employer. This is because, particularly within the civil service, if a civil servant is aware of such acts, they would be required to disclose the facts, under the provisions of the Civil Service Code.

Before you see the rep think about what you would like to achieve by way of an outcome. It may be that you are not sure what can be achieved but it is likely that you have some idea how the matter could be resolved.

The rep is likely to ask you questions and take notes. Notes also remain confidential and will be locked away or kept secure.

You can ask to see any notes that are kept on you by your representative.

If the case is something that the rep hasn't come across before then he or she may ask your permission to speak to another representative, full-time officer or the PCS Legal and Personal Case Unit to seek further advice.

It is up to you whether you allow a rep to do this but it will be difficult for them to do their job if you don't.

Once you have explained your case and answered any questions that your rep may have asked, you will then need to agree with him or her what happens next.

You may receive in writing a copy of what you have agreed with your rep and you should check this carefully to ensure that there are no errors.


What can your PCS rep do?

How your rep helps you will depend on the circumstances of the case and what you want or are prepared to accept.

Your rep will advise on the options available to you, and the best course of action to take.

It remains your decision if you wish to follow their advice, although, if you do not follow the advice given, there may be a limit as to how much help your representative can then give you.

Sometimes your rep can provide you with the information you need by referring you to the codes and manuals that can be so difficult to navigate.

They may be able to reassure you based on their experience of others in your position and advise you what to do next.

Reps can act on your behalf. It may be that your representative can write on your behalf to management.

This can sometimes cause management to reflect on what they have done or intend to do, as they know that your representative will pick up on any errors that they make.

Sometimes getting management to reflect on a decision will be all you need to put the matter right.

It may be that your rep can accompany you to a meeting with management to discuss your case and seek to negotiate an acceptable outcome with you. This can help resolve a matter quickly as exchanges of correspondence can take a long time.

If you are facing a disciplinary hearing or have taken a grievance then you have a legal right to be accompanied by a union representative.

What if your case is against another member?

It may well be the case that you have a grievance against or feel you have been treated badly by a member of staff who is also a member of PCS.

This member may also approach the union, and is entitled to representation where appropriate. PCS is very careful to be fair in such cases, and will ensure that confidential information is not shared.

What if the issues affect other people too?

Some issues affect more than one person and it may be best to take these up as a collective complaint or grievance, as many voices will be more effective than one.

You should consider whether others have the same issues as you, before you meet with your rep.

If this is the case, your rep may look to meet with all those affected and may discuss the option of taking forward a collective grievance.

It may also be necessary to launch a campaign around this particular issue and to involve a PCS regional organiser, who will be able to arrange leaflets, petitions and publicity.


What is a suitable outcome?

This is a bit like asking 'How long is a piece of string?' in that it is different in every case and in every set of circumstances.

You and your rep should discuss both what outcome you want and what you would be prepared to accept as a compromise. You should bear in mind that involving your rep does not in itself guarantee that you will get what you want.

If management is able to concede what the rep is saying on your behalf or if you have discussed all aspects of the case and have reached a compromise then it is often acceptable to settle the case and that should be an end to it.

If you and your rep are unable to agree with management a suitable outcome, then you will have to discuss the case again. Sometimes your representative will be able to obtain more advice from his/her full time officer or other experts within PCS. In these circumstances they may be able to discuss with you what the next steps might be.

Sometimes it means that you will have reached the end of the road with this case. Other times it may well be possible to appeal to a higher level of management, or even to take legal action.


Employment tribunals

If your case is one that can be pursued to an employment tribunal (ET) then PCS may continue to represent you depending on the circumstance of the case.

The CSAB can no longer hear appeals against dismissal, but they are still able to deal with cases involving:

  • Refusals to allow participation in political activities;
  • Forfeiture of superannuation; and
  • The amount of compensation to be paid in inefficiency dismissals.

PCS can advise on supporting such claims to CSAB – but bear in mind that you have to lodge an appeal with them for challenging the amount of compentation within 21 days of being dismissed.

Employment tribunals can hear a wider range of complaints – but they are still limited in their scope. The issue must be one over which they have jurisdiction. A full list of the issues that can be taken before an ET are listed on the ET website.

Appeals to either body have to be submitted within a specific period time – usually for employment tribunals, within 3 months of the date of the event that you are complaining about. Some CSAB complaints have shorter time limits.

You will need to complete the necessary forms, available through your local representative – but the papers in your case need to be with the PCS Support Centre, if possible, no later than four weeks before the deadline date for the ET1 to be submitted to the tribunals. So do not delay contacting your PCS representative.

You should seek assistance as early as possible to ensure that time limits are more likely to be met. If you feel that you have a case that could go to an ET then you should advise your rep at once. Your representative will be able to get advice from the CPS Support Centre.

Remember: it is your case and the responsibility for ensuring that claims to CSAB and/or ET are made in time remains with you.


What if PCS can’t help?

We will always try to help members. Even where a member has contributed fully to the circumstances they are in, a PCS rep can play an important role in ensuring that the disciplinary action that is taken against that member is appropriate to the case and not inconsistent with other cases.

Sometimes, after pursuing a case through the available procedures it may be that your representative feels that the case has reached the end of the line and no further progress can be made. Your representative will usually take advice on this.

There are some circumstances we can’t help with:

  • If winning your case could adversely affect others' terms and conditions then we may tell you that we can't continue to support it. This is highly unusual and only happens where a success for you would undermine others or agreements that have been fought for.
  • If advice suggests the case is not likely to succeed at a tribunal. In such a case we may be able to negotiate a settlement or ensure that no detrimental action is taken against you by your employer but we will usually not represent such cases at ET.
  • If you refuse to take the advice of reps on how to pursue a case then your rep or the Support Centre may take a view that we cannot continue to represent you in that case.
  • You are always free to choose what action is taken but where this is thought to be inappropriate, your representative may take the view that he or she can no longer help.


Points to remember about personal cases

  • Although our reps will do all they can to advise and support you in resolving your issues, they remain ‘your’ issues – you cannot simply pass all responsibility on to your PCS representative. In particular, in respect of time limits, it is your primary responsibility to ensure that these are complied with.
  • Professional advice is available to your representative, through other reps, PCS officers including subject specialists and, in appropriate cases, from our legal advisers. Not all cases will require formal legal advice.
  • PCS representatives will often have to balance the competing demands of union business and work for their employer. They are also not expected to work ‘out of hours’ on personal cases or other union work. Be reasonable in your expectations of your representative, please.


Tips for dealing with problems at work

  • Do not delay approaching your rep. The earlier you bring the case to your rep the more likely the case can be resolved informally and speedily.
  • Do keep notes and copies of all dates, letters and documents relating to the case. These will be important if the case takes time to resolve or has to be passed on to another rep or headquarters department for advice.
  • Do ensure you give your rep all the facts. It is important that you are honest with your representative. What you tell your rep is in confidence but they must know everything, however damaging it may seem.
  • Be realistic in what you expect as a resolution to your issue – most cases are settled through compromise.
  • Be clear what your agreed objective is. The rep is there to act on your behalf and you should agree what actions they are to take.
  • Do not speak or write to management or anyone else about the case without your representative being aware in advance. This can hinder the progress your rep may be making.
  • Do remember that if you are asked to attend a disciplinary or grievance hearing then you have a legal right to be accompanied by your rep and you should use that right.
  • Do be patient. While you can expect your rep to deal with your case without undue delay, they may well have other cases and work impacting on their time. Similarly delays can often occur when management invoke formal procedures. Remember to keep in regular contact with your rep.


Flowchart showing initial processes for new problem at work

  Flowchart showing initial processes for new problem at work


Flowchart showing process following first meeting with rep

  Flowchart showing process following first meeting with rep


Personal and legal cases – Frequently asked questions

1) I am having some problems at work and need advice – what should I do?

Speak to your local PCS rep – as soon as possible.

2) I don’t know who my PCS rep is. How can I find out?

In most workplaces PCS will have a union notice board – look on there for details of who your representative is.

Call your PCS group office to find out.

You could also telephone PCS headquarters, on 020 7924 2727.
3) I want to go to Employment Tribunal – can I?

There are a number of things that you need to do before you can take a case to an Employment Tribunal (ET):

a. Ensure that the thing that you want to complain about is within the ET’s jurisdiction: You can view a full list of the laws that they cover at the ET site.

b. Make sure that any complaint is ‘in time’ – most complaints to ET must be lodged within 3 months of the issue that you are complaining of.

c. If you want PCS support, you need to speak to your local PCS rep and, usually, they will have to arrange to get advice on the strength of your case. 

As costs can be awarded in ETs for hopeless cases, PCS needs to ensure that we do not spend members’ money wastefully by supporting poor cases. Of course, you have the right to take a case yourself, without PCS support, if you want to.

4) I’ve had advice but I’m not happy with it. What can I do?

Think about why you are not happy. Do you have grounds to believe that the advice is wrong? Employment law is a very difficult area of legislation and cases are not easy to prove. You may simply have misjudged the strength of your case. In the first instance, speak to your rep. If they are unable to provide further advice and explanation, ask them to talk to a more experienced rep or to the PCS officers for your bargaining area.
5) My rep is not advising me. What can I do?

Remember that local PCS representatives can have a very heavy workload – they usually have their official work to do as well as their union work. You can speak to either a Branch officer or someone within your bargaining area if you are concerned – see (2) above for how to find contact details.
6) I need a clinical report – will the union pay for it?

In certain circumstances, PCS will assist in the cost of necessary Clinical advice. Where employers are requiring Clinical reports for employment related matters, PCS would usually expect the employer to meet such costs. Read more in the PCS Treasurer’s toolkit.
7) My partner has a problem at work. Can I get advice?

The PCS Employment Law scheme is only for members of the union. Others should seek advice from their own union, if there is one, or could go to alternative sources, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau.


Sources of advice for members with employment questions

When a PCS member has a query about an employment issue, we recommend that they speak to their local PCS representative as soon as possible.

However, we recognise that there may be times when a local rep is not immediately available, or when the member may wish to check things for themselves before raising the issue with their rep.
This guide, therefore, aims to signpost members to useful sources of advice, which they may wish to use.

Contract of employment/staff handbook/employer’s intranet site

If you are an employee, you should have a contract of employment, or at least a written statement of your employment particulars. This should be given to you within two months of starting work. This document must contain certain basic information. Read more at the GOV.UK website

Many Civil Service employers now have intranet sites where their terms and conditions of employment are expanded upon.

This website has a wealth of resources intended to assist members and representatives understand the law relating to employment.

Read more about:

Other useful sites

The internet can be a rich source of advice and guidance on employment issues – but it is important to ensure that any sites that you rely on are giving advice appropriate for UK employment law and that they are reputable.

We suggest the following as good sources of advice:

  • Worksmart - Sponsored and maintained by the TUC, this site aims to give basic advice on all aspects of life at work.
  • GOV.UK employee pages - These pages give a good basic overview of employment law and rights within the UK. Remember that these are based on minimum employment rights and that we have secured better terms and conditions for members.
  • Equality and Human Rights Commission: all you need to know about discrimination at work and in wider society.
  • Health and Safety Executive: If you are concerned about health and safety at work, look at the HSE’s website. They also have a wide range of issue-specific micro web sites, covering the law and best practice on issues such as stress, violence at work, temperatures and worker involvement.
  • GOV.UK business pages. Although they're really intended for employers, these government sponsored pages contain more detailed employment related rights information. 
  • ACAS - The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service provides guidance and advice on employment rights and dispute resolution in the workplace. They also publish Codes of Practice on issues such as the rights of union members and officials to take time off work.
  • Civil Service Appeal Board - explains the coverage of the CSAB and offers guidance for applicants and departments.
  • Employment Tribunal Service - gives guidance on the laws which employment tribunals can enforce and links to the ET1 form to submit a complaint. 

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