Tag Archives: employee complaints

Should You Investigate? Part 1

You just got an employee complaint…Oh, what to do, what to do???

I’ve been pondering this question after years of conducting workplace investigations for clients. After about 350 investigations, the results are interesting: in at least 75% of the situations, nothing illegal has happened. So, should there have been an investigation? It depends.

I have found that some clients immediately choose to investigate when an employee uses what I think of as the big trigger words: harassment, discrimination, hostile work environment. Almost everyone in this day and age has heard these words tossed around. They’re in the media all the time. But few of those who use them understand them to have legal definitions based on statutes and case law.

So here’s what sometimes happens: Sally tells someone in management she’s being harassed and is working in a hostile work environment. That person (rightly) report that allegation to either human resources (if it exists in that workplace) or upper management/the CEO. And then I get a call. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

So what should a manager do when someone comes report that they are being harassed, or are working in a hostile work environment? Shouldn’t you just drop everything and call in the investigator? NOT YET. (Yes, I know I may lose some work by saying this.)

What to do instead? Take the following steps, in this order, and then decide whether you need an investigator.

  1. Assure Sally she will be protected from any retaliation in connection with her complaint (and yes, by saying these words to a supervisor or manager, she has already made a complaint). Ask her to tell you if she feels she is being retaliated against in connection with this complaint – and remind her not to retaliate against anyone else. Any retaliation against her (or by her) in this situation is illegal under both Washington state and federal laws.
  1. Have Sally meet with someone who has been trained to deal with such situations. If no such person exists in your company or organization, do bring in an investigator to interview her appropriately. Then get several people trained in these basic interviewing skills. 
  1. If Sally’s complaint is about one or two specific incidents, ask her to write it up, with as much detail as possible. Then have her sign, date and give the written statement to you (you’d be surprised how many such statements are neither signed nor dated.) If you have an actual complaint form for such situations, of course do ask her to complete that as well.
  1. Ask Sally not to discuss her complaint with her colleagues. This is a very important request, for the sake of your ability to deal with the situation professionally. However, you should not make this a directive. The National Labor Relations Board has indicated that forbidding employees to discuss workplace concerns may be illegal.

Once you have information from Sally, if that information indicates that she has examples of behavior that could be harassing or create a hostile work environment under the law, you must investigate or hire an investigator to do so. Failing to do that could cause an additional complaint against the employer.

And, document, document, document. Note when Sally first came to you, what she said, and what you and others did. Keep that documentation indefinitely.

In my next post, I’ll be providing some additional information about questions to ask (or not ask) in that initial interview, and what else to do (or not do!)

Have you had employees come to you with allegations of discrimination, harassment or hostile work environment? What did you do that worked, or didn’t? Let us know! ~Daphne Schneider

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A Little Slack

In my work, I see bad supervisors and managers. However, I also see a lot of supervisors and managers who have very challenging jobs and do their jobs well. Many do not always maintain the perfect managerial demeanor: at times, they get cranky, short, or visibly frustrated. This is not ideal, but sometimes I think that the bigger problem is that their employees give them no slack.

Some employees, of course, do take these occasional behaviors in stride. They figure the boss is having a bad day and they’ll just give him or her a wide berth until things improve. They don’t take it personally. Or they do take it personally and decide maybe it’s deserved and they should have gotten the report in on time.

Other employees, however, give the boss no slack. “She’s harassing me” or “he’s abusive.” If the employee is late on a project or screwed something up, there’s always an excuse: I’ve been sick, my car broke down, and so on.

So what’s my point? Employers need to take employee complaints against their managers and supervisors seriously and address them promptly. Communications coaching is often in order. At the same time, when an employer is faced with an employee who is quick to feel abused by a boss who is hard working and overall good, I think it’s important for the employer to also suggest to the employee that he or she give the supervisor or manager a little grace. Nobody’s perfect. Reminding the employee that this applies even to the boss is a point worth making.  ~Amy Stephson