Handling Employee Complaints

Updated: June 02, 2009

The process of "intake" or, literally, taking in the complaint is necessarily and properly decidedly different from investigation, and the quality of the intake will indisputably affect an investigator's ability to find facts.

Sepler & Associate's research has found a strong connection between how a complainant is treated when they make their first complaint — to a supervisor, manager, HR person, compliance line or other person — and whether he or she will ultimately bring a charge or lawsuit against the organization.

Not surprisingly, charges of this type arise out of anger, frustration and distrust in the organization's willingness to, interest in or capability for managing the problem they have described. In essence, charges come when complainants believe they have not been listened to, have not been taken seriously, have been unfairly judged, or the organization has not been open and diligent. A charge is the weapon that a complainant has to force their employer to listen. It is essentially the employee saying, "If you won't listen to me, I will find someone to make you."

Assuming that organizations not only want to avoid lawsuits and charges, but also want real problems addressed, there is a strong imperative to provide solid training for those in a position to handle a complaint.

Focusing solely on developing expertise in investigative methodology and procedures and neglecting assurance that intake is professional and consistent can undermine an organization's best intentions. Conflating intake and investigation appears to be one of the biggest errors and organization can make.

the direct questioning and skepticism appropriate in the latter stages of an investigation can crush a complainant's confidence in their employer.

The goal of an intake is to allow a person to be fully heard and their feelings affirmed.

Supervisors and managers are the most common executors of an intake, although human resources representatives and compliance staffs may also be involved. They should be trained to recognize the difference between an employee expressing dissatisfaction or an inter-employee conflict and allegations or intimations of policy violation (with the credo, that when in doubt, they should seek advice) so they can fulfill their obligation to escalate or at least seek advice about a matter.

Most importantly, the supervisor's overall perspective about complaints should be managed. Many will be inclined to view a complaint as a problem or a burden, and view complaining employees as "making trouble."

Many will immediately suspect ulterior motives. One of the best analogies for helping to alter this mindset is to point out that the longer an employee waits to raise an issue, the more organizational resources will be used to address it - thus if employees complain when they are merely troubled by something, it can often be addressed in a simple and straightforward manner. If however, the employee waits until the matter is unbearable (their "cup" is overflowing,) the organization could be substantially disrupted by investigations and charges. Thus, an early complaint (referred to below as a "Contact") is really a gift—something being offered up voluntarily, even though the giver isn't obligated to do so. As such, managers and supervisors can be reminded that the proper etiquette when receiving a gift is to demonstrate gratitude and appreciation - thanking the employee and telling them that you appreciate their giving you the information.

The Contact - a contact is information brought forward by an employee as a result of the employee seeing, hearing, or hearing about something that they believe violates organizational rules or policies. It is usually a single event or incident, and generally the employee is not seeking help for themselves:

Following a regional meeting, Reginald stops in to the Human Resources office and speaks to Dave, a Generalist. "Dave, I was in the sales meeting this morning, and one of the other reps made a real whopper of a racial joke. I mean, I can handle it, but I am sure there were some other people there who were really upset."

In the case of a contact, the employee reporting is rarely in a state of distress.

The primary interaction with the complainant is to thank them for bringing the information forward and to get simple details about the meeting

When it was, who was present, whether this is the first incident the complainant is aware of, etc.

In many cases of this type a simple intervention can be orchestrated

the individual can be asked if they recall telling the joke and coached to desist, or

a notice can be sent to all parties present at the meeting stating that issues have been raised about inappropriate humor and reviewing organizational policies with a warning that a recurrence could result in disciplinary action.

The individual doing the intake should never take such action in isolation.

By consulting with the appropriate party (the clearinghouse) the action can be affirmed and supported, or can be overruled due to matters not recognized by the intake person - for instance if it was determined that a senior manager was present, it might be important to determine whether that individual has already taken action (good) or failed to take steps to address it during or after the meeting (bad).

What is important from a resource utilization perspective is that many contact-type of complaints do not require and are not well served by a full investigation.

The Concern A concern level complaint involves an employee who is experiencing some distress, whose "cup" is fuller than they would like it to be, and is attempting to seek relief.

Ironically, it is quite usual in this case that although they are seeking relief, they are still convinced that reporting the matter would create more stress and not relieve it, so the employee often asks for confidentiality - the opportunity to "just vent."

What is happening, psychologically, is that they want to "pour off" some of their stress so they can continue to cope.

The serious dilemma here is that employers are not in a position to agree to keep secrets when it comes to possible violations of law and certain policies.

Managers and supervisors and others in a position to receive complaints should not only be apprised of the importance of not promising inappropriate confidentiality, but how to handle the matter in a way that builds, rather than erodes, employee trust.

Yolanda has worked at your company for nearly ten years, and over those years has become very close to Jane, a supervisor in another department. They frequently have coffee together and discuss their work and personal lives in some detail. One day, Yolanda approaches Jane and says "Jane, I need a friend. Can I discuss something with you in confidence?" Jane pauses for a moment and says, "Yolanda, we are good friends, and I would like to instantly say yes, but the fact is that while in most circumstances I can honor that request, there are some circumstances under which I cannot. If you want to discuss something that might involve violations of our policy, I am under an obligation to be sure something is done about, whether or not you and I would want it that way." Yolanda remains quiet, so Jane continues,"Of course, Yolanda, I care about whatever you have to say, and you know that I will do everything I can to help you and to preserve your privacy." Yolanda looks relieved, and tells Jane of an ongoing problem with her own supervisor.

A concern level complaint generally involves behavior that has continued over time -repeat or multiple incidents or ongoing conduct that is interfering with an employees' sense of comfort, well being or safety.

The employee is probably still functioning well, although the employee issue triad might have begun to emerge.

The most important steps in responding to an employee in this stage, in addition to the expression of gratitude, is to listen to whatever they want to say, to recognize and validate their distress, and to provide as much information as possible regarding steps that will be taken to look into or address the issue.

In these matters, the trust of the employee is very fragile, and not over-promising, but diligently delivering on those promises made, is critical to keeping the situation from escalating.

It is also important to provide role clarification here to a person receiving the report -once they have referred the matter to the clearinghouse; supervisors have ongoing responsibility to be a "process advocate" for the complainant—checking in regularly to ensure that the complainant feels fully informed of the process and that assurances and promises are kept.

This does not mean that there is substantive discussion about the complaint - generally there should not be, but real interest in the well being and understanding of the complainant.

Most concern level complaints will call for investigation, although some might only require the simplest of inquiries.

The Complaint a complaint level report is made by someone whose "cup" is overflowing.

The problematic behavior or situation has overshadowed all other aspects of the work environment.

This individual is almost always reporting longstanding or highly explicit/offensive conduct and usually believes that the organization has condoned or allowed it since it has not been stopped in the past. The individual will be emotionally escalated and may make ominous statements or excessive demands. He or she will often use legal terms to describe the problem they are having.

Three employees knock on the Shift Managers door and then burst in. "We need to speak to you," says Taye, the most senior of the employees. "We want to file a complaint about what's going on out on the floor. We think that there is a hostile environment here for people of color, and we have had enough of this. We are picked on, disrespected, discriminated against and no one here gives a damn…"

"Whoa," interrupts the Shift Manager, "why don't you calm down and have a seat?"

"We don't need a seat. We don't need to calm down. We need those supervisors fired today, "responds Taye.

In a complaint, the tendency of a manager or supervisor might be to become defensive or upset, or to try to encourage employees to "be reasonable."

These responses are ineffective at best and inflammatory at worst.

Those who do intake should expect and accept a high degree of emotion during this kind of complaint, and not take it personally; nor should he or she expect that the initial version of events will be factually accurate.

In fact, in this type of intake, one should expect to hear ‘advocacy speak," a term that recognizes that people in distress are much more interested in telling "their side," than a neutral recitation of the facts. Thus, the term refers to the expression of feelings and events for purposes of persuading and accomplishing an alliance, supportive response or other emotional validation of the event or events being described. People doing intake can recognize this and accept that first reports of this intensity will routinely include distortions, magnifications, overstatements, omissions, and outright misstatements of fact.

Attempts to instruct complainants to "stick to the facts or to be reasonable simply will escalate the intensity of this phenomenon. Rather, as experienced investigators understand, this type of overstatement is a routine and essential part of processing of events that is best managed by validating the emotions or feelings being expressed (I can see that you are really upset.") until the complainants have exhausted what they want to say.

The hallmark of responding to complaint- level reports is to avoid defensiveness and to emphasize promptness and action. Telling the complainants that you take their concern very seriously, instituting immediate interim actions to minimize further disruption and to secure evidence (i.e. separating parties, securing documents) and being very specific and precise about next steps is essential.

What is most essential is that the urgency of the complaint, as indicated by the distress of the complainant, is communicated to the clearinghouse to orchestrate a proper response.

No matter the stage, the intake should not involve interrogation or deep fact finding. It is a separate and distinct stage of complaint handling that sets the stage for the appropriate designation of resources and effective identification and resolution of issues.

In summary, intake should involve the following:

  • Thanking the person for coming forward and being willing to describe their concerns
  • Listening attentively to what the person has to say
  • Avoiding interrupting, expressing doubt or challenging the version provided.
  • Determining the impact the complainant believes the situation or conduct is currently having and taking immediate steps to neutralize or counter them, where possible (this also may mean acting to preserve evidence or protect others, depending on the severity of allegations)
  • Being appropriately empathetic, acknowledging the very real feelings being expressed, but not validating any facts
  • Describing in detail steps that will be taken to pursue the matter. Will this matter be referred elsewhere? When, and what will happen next? Will there be an investigation? What will the complainant be expected to do?
  • Expressing concern for the well being of the complainant and describing prohibitions against reprisal.
  • Getting the basics, and only the basics from the complainant:
  • What happened?
  • Who was involved?
  • Where and When?
  • First Time or Similar events prior?
  • Who saw it? Who may have heard it or seen something?
  • Who did you tell about it ? When?
  • What actions did you take?
  • Do you have any electronic or written records that would be helpful in understanding or verifying this event?
  • What prompted this report?

The intake should not include

  • Extensive or intensive note-taking ( a preprinted intake form can be very helpful)
  • Detailed questioning
  • Pressing for details or challenging versions of events
  • Questions or comments about the character of the complainant or any other employee
  • Statements as to whether the person doing the intake believes what they are hearing?
  • Asking the complainant what they did to create the situation ("what was your part in it?" may be the worst question one can ask in this situation)
  • Trying to "trick" the complainant into a retraction
  • Labeling the complainant as a "whiner"
  • Implying that a "false complaint" could result in problems for the complainant, or making veiled statements about the reputation of any accused

Once the intake is complete, the organizational clearinghouse process should be used to determine if and what type of investigation is needed (i.e. if everything the complainant has alleged is true, would it be a violation of policy? Are there facts which cannot be independently verified?) and the investigative intake should commence. By increasing organizational competence and role clarity regarding intake versus investigation, organizations predict a greater perception of fairness by employees, a lower rate of litigated matters, and a higher degree of cooperation when and if an investigation does begin.

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