HR Tip: Responding to Complaints

Employee complaints come in all shapes and sizes, and the ones that we are focusing on here are the serious ones. Like when your employee talks about being harassed, discriminated against, treated differently because of a protected characteristic, etc. Sometimes your staff might say these exact words, or they may just say something about how an event made them uncomfortable.


It's your responsibility as an employer to make sure that all of your employees are free from discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace. You should know that it is really difficult for most people to come to an employer about these issues if the come up. You should also know that there are very clear legal definitions of what all of these things are, and the first step for you is to learn more about what happened to that you can determine the next appropriate steps.


When you get a complaint, the first step is to gather information about what happened. This means talking to the person who is reporting this issue and talking to all others involved - this may be an accused person and/or witnesses. You can also review video footage or other electronic documentation of the event if that is available to you. At this point, you are gathering information so that you can determine what the appropriate next step is. Should you decide to open an investigation, this requires certain notices to be sent to all parties and in the state of California an experienced investigator is the best option for conducting an investigation. Depending on the information gathered and your next steps it may be advisable to consult an employment attorney who specializes in this work.


Before you talk with the staff, decide on what information you need to gather. You can start out with who, what, when, where, why, how questions. You'll want to learn from each person who was there when the event occurred. You should be clear about what happened and where it happened. Don't assume that all the stories will align. Very often when you ask for information from different people you find that the details are different for each person. This is especially true if time has passed since the event. It is best to speak to everyone as soon as possible after the event. Take notes on what you hear so you have them to reference later.


Once you have gathered the information you have a couple of options. If you are 100% sure that that there was clearly no illegal activity you can let the involved parties know that. If you identified some issues that the company can work on to limit confusion, you can also share that information with the involved parties. If you are unclear as to whether illegal activity occurred, or if you feel that it did occur, then I would recommend that you reach out to an employment attorney who has worked on similar issues in the past to help you with the next steps.


If you need to move forward with an investigation it is usually a difficult time for all the parties involved. As a business owner you will have many tough decisions in front of you. Your employees will be involved in a process which requires their confidentiality about a matter and that can be very difficult for people. This is one of the reasons it is helpful to bring in an outside investigator. Additionally an investigator has no connection to any of the parties and can provide an impartial and unbiased investigation.


The typical steps to an investigation are as follows:

  • Keep information on a need to know basis

  • Notice employees involved in the investigation

  • Interview complainant, accused, witnesses, others as necessary - investigators typically have a standardized set of questions that are used for these interviews

  • Make a determination about whether harassment/discrimination/bullying occurred

  • Make a determination about consequences for the accused if it did occur

  • Notice employees involved in the investigation

  • Notice all employees

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