Employee complaints. Even in a well-run workplace they’re inevitable, and how you respond can be crucial. Do you know when an investigation is legally required or when it might provide a defense? Complaints and investigations should not be taken lightly — are you prepared?
In a BLR webinar titled "Conducting Workplace Investigations: A Step-by-Step Virtual Summit for HR Leaders," Buena Vista Lyons and Delaine Smith outlined some guidance for us on what do to when responding to an employee complaint.
Handling Employee Complaints Step 1: When the Employee Comes to You
The famous first words of a complaint are often "I need to talk to you." And of course they’re often uttered at a time when you have too many other things to handle. But your reaction to an employee complaint will set the stage for its resolution, so it pays to have a plan. In the webinar, Lyons and Smith gave us some tips for how to react during those initial moments after hearing an employee complaint (or an indication of such):
- Be friendly and open to talk
- Do not immediately go into defense mode
- Treat every complaint seriously
- Be sincere
"Be aware of the fact that if it’s not a good time for you [to talk], that it’s your responsibility to offer a specific time and a place to meet; and try to do that within 24 hours. And before that 24-hour period goes by, if you can’t come up with a specific time and place, be sure to get back to them to schedule that meeting." Lyons advised. The first mistake employers often make is not handling the concern promptly; when a lawsuit arises and the claimant says they went to HR to complain but no one followed up, you’re left without much defense. It’s very important to take complaints seriously and follow up.
Handling Employee Complaints Step 2: Determine the Best Person to Handle the Employee Complaint
Once the employee begins explaining the complaint, immediately begin assessing who would be the best person to handle the issue at hand. Sometimes the answer is you, but other times there may be someone more appropriate, depending on the details of the situation.
Once you understand the issue at hand, if you’re the best person to handle it then allow the employee to continue. But if not, stop the conversation and identify to whom the person should take the issue. If someone else is more appropriate, call that person right then and set up a meeting time or ask that person to join the ongoing meeting, if possible. Be sure that you’ve taken appropriate steps to get the complaint on the path to resolution.
When hearing an employee complaint, always remember that you are not a confidant. You are an arm of the company, and as such, information you learn may impute knowledge on the company. That said, you are also not alone – take the employee complaint to a higher authority. If an employee requests confidentiality, you can advise that you will maintain confidentiality to the extent possible, but that there is an obligation to discuss the matter with others and investigate (if applicable). You want to set forth that consistent message every time you’re in this situation. Smith confirmed this during the webinar: "There are no off-the-record conversations when these sorts of issues come up."
Handling Employee Complaints Step 3: Listening and Responding
When handling an employee complaint, you need to be an active listener. Listen for the facts: who, what, when and where. Do not presume you know where the person is going – follow the road map they give. Don’t be distracted by thinking about your investigation prematurely or passing judgment on the situation and making assumptions.
Lyons also advised during the webinar that "it’s important to take notes because your memory will fail you". Notes allow you "to summarize and be able go back over those statements for clarification with the complainant." Ask questions to clarify what you heard, and be sure not to second-guess the complainant.
Once you’ve gotten to this point, it’s important to close this initial conversation properly. Firstly, be sure to thank the person for coming forward, because this will go a long way to putting the employee at ease knowing they did the right thing in coming forward. Here are some other tips for closing the conversation:
- Reiterate the fact that the company takes these types of things seriously and will take prompt action to look into the matter.
- Don’t jump to any conclusions or say anything to indicate agreement with the claimant; be neutral.
- Tell the employee that you will determine need and scope of further investigation.
- Explain that you will keep the conversation as confidential as possible, but that others will need to be involved.
- Ask the complainant to put their complaint in writing (signed and dated) with as much detail as possible. Sometimes the employee may be hesitant; if you can’t get it in writing, you still need to proceed based solely on the information provided verbally. Do not say you won’t do anything without the written statement – it is important to take some action now!
For more information on employee complaints, order the webinar recording. To register for a future webinar, visit http://catalog.blr.com/audio.
Attorney Buena Vista Lyons, a partner in the Dallas office of Ford & Harrison, LLP, is Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. She focuses her practice on the defense of employers in labor and employment related matters.
Attorney Delaine Smith, a partner in the Memphis office of Ford & Harrison, LLP, represents employers in all areas of employment law. She litigates claims of discrimination, harassment and retaliation under federal and state fair employment statutes, as well as state law tort, contract, non-compete, and trade secret claims.