An employee complains that a supervisor is harassing her, touching her inappropriately, treating her different than other employees, or any of a number of other types of complaints. What should you do?
The natural reaction is to immediately question the employee who is the target of the complaint. The goal when dealing with a complaint is to address the issue in a way that minimizes any financial and emotional impact on your organization, and if you rush to speak with the alleged harasser without proper planning and guidance you may make the situation worse. You need a systematic plan before you speak with anyone other than your HR team or legal counsel.
Proper planning involves first obtaining thorough information from the person making the accusations, and then determining from the information you obtain during that initial interview who else needs to be interviewed. Often the employee making the complaint is distraught or angry, so it is critical to listen and carefully phrase questions to elicit as much information as possible without causing the complainant to “shut down”. Your list of potential interviewees will include not only the accused but may also include coworkers, supervisors and possibly even friends and family of the alleged victim. None of these fact-finding processes is cookie-cutter and so each fact-finding has to be planned well to ensure the best possible process.
What are some typical problems we find when conducting fact-finding processes?
- A client knew their supervisor or employee was “difficult” and had not adequately addressed their behavior towards other employees
- Employees were being hired without conducting references or background checks, a failure of basic due diligence in the hiring process
- The supervisor accused suddenly wants to tell us about performance issues with the employees who were interviewed, that they meant to tell us about earlier
- The first interview was with the accused, who convinces the Client he did nothing wrong and the employee just had a grudge
- Management wants it resolved quickly and quietly so important steps in the process get rushed or skipped entirely.
How do you prevent these problems? First, ensure best practices in human resources, including:
- Proper screening of candidates
- Documented training that includes anti-harassment and supervising fundamentals
- Address performance issues timely and appropriately with proper documentation
- Maintain adequate and correct documentation of any complaints and follow-up
- Set a zero tolerance corporate policy and tone in your organization
- Identify who is authorized to handle complaints
Any employee complaint requires urgent but thoughtful action. An immediate and effective response can save your company thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of management and employee time. If you receive a complaint and believe the situation may lead to a formal complaint with a government agency or future litigation, then seeking professional advice from either a highly qualified HR professional or legal counsel may be your best option.