Handling Workplace Complaints

Workplace complaints are as varied as individual work places. Further, they are impacted by local attitudes, the composition of your population, and even the culture of your workplace. There are three facts that are absolutely indisputable about work place complaints. The first is that every work place has them. The second is that they cannot be ignored, no matter how strange they may sound at first. The third is that work place complaints will not solve themselves. They do require your attention.

Workplace complaints can be loosely classified into several categories for the purposes of this discussion. These categories are:

  • Issues that involve or may involve legal issues. (Sexual harassment is probably the most familiar of these).
  • Issues which threaten rules or procedures established by your company, whether or not they involve legalities. (These could include your performance management system).
  • Consider also the issues which don’t involve legalities or even a violation of company policy. But they DO impact employee morale and attitude, and, as such, are worth your attention.
  • Workforce complaints that are actually intended to mask another issue, such as under-performance by the complaining employee.
  • Finally, you will receive some strange and even bazaar work-place complaints! These could include complaints about the smell of the workplace, or the belief that it is not physically arranged to maximize “good vibes.” Or it could include complaints about the decor of another employee’s office, or others’ telephone habits. You get the idea!

I don’t mean to imply that all these complaints aren’t worth some time from you. They are, even the last category. The reason for you to spend some time on even this last category is that strange or odd complaints can reflect something which is keeping employees from being as productive as they can be. Also, if you actually have employees lodging complaints in the last category, you may well need to set some different expectations in your workplace.

Let’s back up just a minute. Many businesses rely on an employee handbook to provide some basic guidelines for employee behavior. What may seem counter-intuitive is that many employers today decline to print hard copies of such handbooks. They do, however, post policies on line. This is to be sure employees have access to the latest version of various policies. It is, of course, imperative that employers inform employees of any policy changes and where to access those updates. Policies are literally useless if employees are not aware of them.

Consider the first category. As an employer, it is absolutely imperative that you have in place an iron-clad process or procedure for handling complaints which could, if not addressed, involve you with outside government agencies. These include sexual harassment, other kinds of harassment, favoritism (including nepotism), and discrimination issues to include hiring, promoting and complaints about assignment of work. Any safety-related complaints are critical to address as are those regarding hours and pay. Make sure your supervisors and managers are tuned in to potential complaints in these areas and that they do not ignore such issues. They should be instructed to immediately involve Human Resources professionals should concerns in these areas be expressed to them. Does this sound like over-reaction to you?

There are at least 3 reasons to react this aggressively when you hear about issues in these areas:

1. If an issue or complaint is real, you address it quickly and your employees know you address it quickly. It’s less likely to occur again, and people who were shy about such reporting may come forward, providing you with the opportunity to fix real problems early.

2. If such complaints or concerns receive immediate, serious attention, those who are just blowing smoke or trying to cause trouble get the message loud and clear that this is a serious issue, and may well not be worth the trouble it would cause them to file frivolous complaints.

3. Those who skate close to the edge get the message that inappropriate behaviors will not be tolerated in your work place. In effect, your diligent posture may actually discourage future misbehaviors.

What about the actual investigation of a workplace complaint? This is, surprisingly, a pretty simple part of the process. Your responsibility is to confidentially talk to everyone involved, to take excellent notes, and to compile an easy-to-understand report of your findings-and to do so very quickly.

There are several ideas to keep in mind when you are performing an investigation of a work-place complaint. First, make sure you speak to ALL people who may have information for you, whether or not you believe them to be credible witnesses. Secondly, provide your interviewees with a safe and confidential place to speak to you. Third, do not share information with those you are interviewing; your job is to compile a complete picture of the relevant events — not to share it with all involved.

Finally, once the investigation is concluded, you must circle back and touch base with the original complaining party. At this point, you are not obligated to share all the “testimony” you have collected. What this conversation with the complainant should include is the fact that you have interviewed all parties involved, and that you have addressed the issue. Sometimes, changes in past events or determinations impacting the complainant may result from your investigation. Those should be shared with the complaining party.

Let’s suppose that your investigation reveals that the complainant’s manager has rated her poorly because of a demonstrated and documented bias against women. You may inform your complainant that her rating has been changed, but you should not inform her that her manager has been disciplined as a result of the investigation. When you keep in mind that the health and viability of the work place is paramount, this stance makes sense to you. You have corrected the incorrect action, you have addressed the person responsible, but you have not fed the fires of discontent which could continue to be disruptive and destructive in your work place.

One final thought about workplace complaints — an ostrich posture will only hurt you in the long run. Most of us prefer to avoid conflict and confrontation. That attitude and demeanor is possibly your worst move in the face of work-place complaints. Regardless of who is complaining or of how strange or unfounded the complaint seems at first glance, you serve yourself and your company best by taking every complaint under consideration, by investigating it fully, and by reporting back your findings. Why? Because, as we stated in the beginning, work-place complaints are as varied as are work places and those who inhabit them. Don’t short-change yourself by making a snap decision that this issue does not deserve your time and attention. If it surfaces, it requires your attention!

Categories Conflict Resolution

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