Effective Management of Employee Complaints

Managing employee complaints effectively is essential to maintaining a healthy business environment.  An effective employee complaint procedure can provide an employer with legal defenses in the event of a civil action and foster a positive workplace where employees feel they are heard and treated justly.  

Below we review the steps for handling employee complaints, including receipt of the employee’s complaint, the investigation, the findings and determination, and the complaint resolution.

Receiving the Employee’s Complaint

The first step occurs when the employee makes the complaint.  Employee complaints can encompass various issues, from wage and benefit disputes to allegations of harassment or hostile work environments, all of which may fall under the purview of laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Typically, the employee makes the complaint verbally or in an email.  Even if the complaint seems informal, the complaint should be treated seriously, particularly when it implicates the company’s legal duties, such as claims of discrimination, harassment, or unlawful conduct.  Listen to the employee carefully and take notes.  If applicable, direct the employee to the complaint resolution procedures in the company’s employee handbook, including any requirement for making complaints in writing.  In some cases, an employee’s failure to comply with the complaint procedures can provide a legal defense to an employer in the event the employee later makes a legal claim.  Regardless of whether you have complaint procedures, encourage the employee to put the complaint in a written document, identifying all relevant details, parties, dates, and any witnesses.  

Investigating the Complaint

The next step is to investigate the complaint.  Designate someone in management (who is not a subject of the complaint) to be the person who is in charge of the investigation.  In some cases, bringing in an attorney to conduct the investigation can be effective, especially when the complaint touches on complex issues or potential unlawful conduct.  Attorneys can contribute their professional expertise and keep the investigation focused on matters relevant to the complaint.  Importantly, because of the attorney-client privilege, attorneys also can help keep the investigation confidential.  But as someone conducting the fact investigation, attorneys also can become witnesses in potential litigation, which could limit their role in future legal representation.

The investigator should begin by collecting and reviewing all relevant documents, including the written complaint and documents referenced therein.  Relevant documents may include emails and and other evidence that may document the conduct at issue, such as video surveillance footage.  

Next, the investigator should identify and interview witnesses.  Interviews are conducted starting with the complainant so that the investigator has a clear and complete understanding of the complaint.  Then, the investigator should interview the subject of the complaint and any witnesses.  The investigator should be kind, fair, objective, and thorough as they conduct all the interviews, taking meticulous notes along the way.  If someone identifies a new document or other new evidence, the investigator should obtain it and conduct a follow-up interview if needed.  Thoroughly gathering information from various perspectives is vital to get a complete picture of the situation. 

Investigation Findings & Determination 

After the investigator completes the investigation, they should prepare a written report that outlines the facts they uncovered in the course of their document review and interviews.  This report should be kept confidential and not disclosed to the parties.  Using the findings in the investigator’s report, the investigator and/or management can determine the veracity of the complaint and whether any wrong-doing occurred. 

Complaint Resolution

Depending on the nature and severity of the wrong-doing, resolutions can include no action if the complaint is unfounded or revising company policies or procedures.  In cases where the issue seems to be personal to the parties involved, an effective resolution may be to separate them so that they no longer work together.  In more severe cases, it may be necessary to terminate involved parties, especially in cases of repeated wrong-doing.  Regardless of the action taken, be careful to avoid any appearance that you are retaliating against any party for engaging in legally protected activity.  

Once a decision has been made, meet with the employee to discuss the investigator’s findings and the action to be taken.  Find out whether the complainant is satisfied with the resolution, and if not, attempt to find a reasonable alternative action that does satisfy them. Then issue a written statement to the parties with a brief explanation of the factual findings, determination, and resolution.  

Impact of Resolution on Business Goals

Resolving employee complaints effectively is not only about addressing the issue at hand but also about aligning the resolution with the broader objectives of the business. 

A well-managed complaint resolution process can lead to cost savings by avoiding litigation and reducing staff turnover. It also plays a significant role in maintaining a positive and productive work environment, which is crucial for employee morale and overall business success.

Tackling Workplace Complaints Together

Effectively managing employee complaints is key to maintaining a healthy, legally compliant, and productive workplace. For employers seeking assistance in this area, Baker Jenne offers consultation and guidance. We are here to help guide you through the process of tackling employee complaints, ensuring your business adheres to legal standards while fostering a positive work environment. Contact us to schedule a consultation and discover how we can support your business in effectively managing workplace complaints.

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Baker Jenner LLLP

Baker Jenner LLLP is a business solutions law firm. We partner with clients to achieve their goals while managing transactional, regulatory, and legal risks.

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