As a manager, supervisor, HR professional, or business owner, responding to employee complaints is part of your job description. Here are some “dos and don’ts” to help you do so more effectively.
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1. Do Listen Carefully and Ask Questions
When responding to employee complaints, your first goal is to make the complaining employee feel valued and heard. Listen carefully to what they are telling you and ask follow-up questions to ensure you understand the problem, the players, and the employee’s preferred resolution.
Don’t Dismiss the Employee Complaint Off-Hand
An employee complaint may seem frivolous or unbelievable. Avoid drawing conclusions during the initial interview. Even a minor complaint could be a sign of a bigger conflict in the future.
2. Do Thank the Employee for Coming Forward
Remember that raising a complaint often takes courage. Thank your employee for bringing the issue to your attention. You may want to say that you are sorry they went through this or are feeling the way they are. This simple act helps your employee feel their concerns will be taken seriously.
Don’t Make Promises About the Outcome
At the same time, don’t overpromise. Remember that you have only heard one side of the story at this point. Promise to respond to employee complaints but avoid making promises about specific outcomes. Instead, give your employee a date when you will follow up with them, and then keep that promise.
3. Do Investigate the Claims
Promptly investigate and respond to employee complaints. The longer it takes you to address the issue, the more details witnesses and coworkers will forget, and the more you risk making your employee feel their concerns were not validated. If the complaint relates to a process, go through it yourself or shadow someone who does it. If it involves a coworker – such as a workplace harassment complaint – interview everyone involved. Gather documents and take notes until you feel you have a complete picture.
Don’t Take Sides
Remember that you are investigating the employee’s complaint, not trying to prove it. Their perceptions may have been clouded by emotions or their own biases. Avoid trying to prove or disprove their version of events. Instead, simply gather the evidence and evaluate what really happened.
4. Do Encourage Confidentiality
When an employee complains about a problem at work, they will often talk about the issue with their coworkers as well. Encourage the complaining employee to keep the matter to themselves, at least while you perform the investigation. That way coworkers’ opinions won’t be biased by gossip they heard in the break room.
Don’t Violate Any Worker’s Privacy
As the one responding to employee complaints you have a strict duty to respect your workers’ privacy. This includes the complaining employee and whoever they are complaining about. Address the issue confidentially, in private. Avoid shaming an employee by raising the issue in a meeting or other public venue. Respect everyone involved, even if it becomes clear that some discipline is in order.
5. Do Facilitate a Meeting to Resolve Disputes
In many cases, the most effective way to resolve conflict at work is through a facilitated meeting between the complaining employee and the offending employee. This meeting should be outcome-focused, giving each side a chance to express their preferred future, and helping them commit to a plan that meets everyone’s needs for a safe and healthy working environment.
Don’t Punish Without Cause
While you should respond to employee complaints quickly, you should avoid making snap decisions about discipline, especially against the complaining employee. Remember that retaliation can escalate workplace disputes and can sometimes be illegal. Take the time to complete your investigation before taking any action.
Bonus: Do Get a Neutral Facilitator to Respond to Employee Complaints
Some employee complaints are more severe than others. If you believe you cannot be impartial or if the claims made are serious, a neutral conflict resolution specialist can help you get to the root of the problem. This facilitator can interview everyone involved privately and mediate the dispute without either side worrying about whether what they say will be held against them by their coworkers or supervisors.
David Stanislaw is an organizational development specialist with over 25 years’ experience helping teams resolve workplace conflict. Contact us to meet with David to respond to your employees’ complaints today.