Handling Employee Complaints Against a Manager or Leader

Handling employee complaints is part and parcel of an HR professional’s role. It can be especially tricky when the complaint is severe and the perpetrator is the employee’s manager or leader. As an employer, you need to provide employees with a process and safe space for them to report incidents of harassment or abuse.

You must treat every complaint seriously and conduct a thorough investigation to reach the fairest possible outcome. It’s also vital to make employees feel listened to whenever they share their concerns. Ignoring or mishandling complaints can have dire consequences for both employees and the company. For example, a study conducted by HRD America found that 30% of workplace bullying victims developed post-traumatic stress disorder or experienced suicidal thoughts. Additional research by Stanford University showed that companies face a 40% reduction in productivity when employees experience workplace bullying. It can be costly, too! According to EEOC data, the average out-of-court settlement for employment discrimination claims is $40,000. Studies of verdicts have shown that about 10% of wrongful termination cases result in a verdict of $1,000,000 or more!

HR professionals and leaders play a vital role in protecting employees by developing policies that define acceptable behavior and procedures for handling situations outside of those expectations. Here are some best practices for developing and enforcing these policies and procedures.


1) Create and communicate a defined anti-bullying and harassment policy

The first step is to develop clear and well-defined policies on behaviors that your organization will and will not tolerate in the workplace. The types of behaviors considered misconduct should be crystal clear to all employees. Likewise, it would be best if you communicated expectations for reporting adverse behavior and any consequences.

Store these policies in your employee handbook and make them a regular part of your new hire orientation. Also, require employees to review them periodically. Collect a confirmation of receipt and understanding of the guidelines from all employees. Clearly defining and communicating unacceptable workplace behaviors will aid in building a positive company culture where all employees treat one another with dignity and respect.


2) Respond promptly to any complaints

When an employee comes to you with a complaint, be ready to listen and ask questions, no matter how big or small. It’s best to hear all the details while they are fresh in the employee’s mind. If an immediate meeting is not an option, set a time convenient to the employee.

When an employee confides in you, they should understand what details you need to share and which are confidential as you investigate the incident. For example, if investigating harassment or discrimination, you will need to divulge information to the manager or supervisor accused of the wrongdoing. However, the employee should notify you immediately of any retaliation or further incident with the individual(s).

Last, it’s critical to let the employee know the next steps you will take and what to expect.


3) Investigate

A thorough investigation requires gathering enough information to determine what happened and reach a fair conclusion. Consider who you will interview, including witnesses, and how you will document your investigation.


Elicit as much information as possible from the complainant. Ask probing questions to gather their side of the story, complete with all of the details. Articulate back to the employee what they said to make sure you understood their account correctly. At the end of the interview, assure them that you’ll conduct a fair and thorough investigation and take action if warranted.


Separately, interview the accused. They must not have the opportunity to intimidate the plaintiff. Notify the accused of the allegations made against them. Remind them that retaliation is not permissible while reassuring them of a fair hearing. Again, gather as many details as possible to identify where accounts may differ.


Next, talk to any witnesses. Do not divulge any details and avoid leading questions. Instead, allow them to give you any information they have. Obtaining witness statements helps you gather facts that confirm or disprove the employee’s claims.


Remember to document everything. Take plenty of notes, even on seemingly minor details. Also, collect any additional evidence such as documents, email correspondence, voice messages, or computer files that might add to the investigation. Keep all written evidence secure in an investigation folder. You might need it in case of further dispute or legal action taken against your company.


4) Analyze the evidence

Once you’ve gathered all of your evidence, look through it in great detail. Look for patterns and inconsistencies. Talk to all parties in the complaint again if you need an explanation of any discrepancies you have found. As you look at the evidence, it’s worth consulting your HR colleagues and, in some cases, seeking advice from an attorney. This may help you determine if any misconduct violates any laws. By thoroughly analyzing the evidence, you can decide on the most appropriate course of action.


5) Take action

If allegations are determined valid, then it’s time to take action. Since you’ve already outlined the consequences of unacceptable workplace behavior, you simply need to enact them. It’s also important to follow up with the complainant to ensure they have all the support they need.


What if the complaint is unfounded or you find someone falsely accused?

If the complaint is unfounded, you need to let both parties know as soon as possible. If there is a lack of sufficient evidence, let the employee know what type of evidence you need in the event of any future incidents. Refer to the company’s policies and remind employees of conduct expectations and responsibilities. Unless caught in an un-refutable lie, do not reprimand the employee for reporting the incident. It may deter them or others from reporting issues moving forward. Provide the wrongly accused the same level of support as you would for a victim of abuse.

Handling employee complaints is one of the most sensitive and challenging roles of an HR professional. To perform this role effectively, you need to have a fair, documented, and meticulous approach to policy enforcement. By doing so, you’re protecting your employees and promoting a safe and friendly work environment conducive to productivity.


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