Groups of professionals find it remarkably difficult to talk about anything other than the day job. A cluster of doctors will swap stories - in confidence of course - about interesting and demanding patients.

Groups of professionals find it remarkably difficult to talk about anything other than the day job. A cluster of doctors will swap stories - in confidence of course - about interesting and demanding patients.

Apparently, the people who maintain London's Victorian sewers discuss how you can locate what is above by what enters the system - Leicester Square recently produced a 150ft slab of fat.

Eavesdrop on a huddle of human resources managers and it is very likely they will be talking about grievances. The most talked about are those that go all the way - many lessons are learned when the Tribunals Service ends up arbitrating.

Grievances are not new. In a financial crisis prompted by the Napoleonic wars, nurses went on strike when their food and beer allowances were reduced. They only returned to work when rice was added to their diet.

Current concerns about pay are highly audible - and those treating the sick in the 18th century made their views known too. When Guy's Hospital was founded in 1725, the 11 ward sisters negotiated a salary of£25 each - nearly double what their counterparts were paid elsewhere.

Designing a system that invites people to raise grievances is the sort of thing that could only happen in the workplace. In the best cases, formal policies and procedures are designed to prevent the need for formal action. In some cases, unfortunately, not only does the informal stage fail, but formal hearings, appeals and employment tribunals follow.

In the whole economy last year, there were 115,000 employment tribunal referrals, representing over 200,000 claims. These chiefly related to unfair dismissal, unauthorised deduction of wages, breach of the working-time directive, breach of contract and sex discrimination. On average, an employer spends£20,000 a year on fees and settlements. Each case absorbs 350 days of management time, not to mention staff and union time.

Some argue that the 2004 statutory dispute resolution procedure has only added to the growth of grievances, although it was intended to do the opposite. Most states in the US have prescribed compulsory mediation as the first point of call.

The procedure is being reviewed, which could result in its abolition or improved guidance to encourage early resolution of disputes.

The latest NHS annual staff survey reveals much about morale and motivation. In terms of feeling aggrieved, useful data shows employers how they compare with others. For example, do staff find appraisals valuable? Do they participate in effective teams? Do they have supportive immediate management? Do they feel procedures are fair?

Some employers have taken advantage of the new equality legislation to review their policies, ensuring informality is promoted and fairness and efficiency guaranteed. This has involved recognition that non-executive directors no longer need to participate in the appeal stages.

You may be able to imagine an ideal employer which never needs to consider grievances. The truth is they are a fact of life, hence the HR huddles - but they are time well spent.

David Amos is director of workforce at University College London Hospitals foundation trust.