Handling Employee Grievances

No matter how happy and engaged your workforce is, an occasional complaint is bound to arise.  As a business leader, it’s your job to ensure that employees communicate these concerns in a productive way.  While small grievances will certainly be reported (and you should review those), you should be on the lookout for problems that could damage your business, such as harassment, discrimination, violence, and theft.

Channels for reporting complaints

While publicly-traded companies are required to have a hotline for complaints, privately-held companies can be more flexible in their approach, and employees can report complaints over the phone, in-person/open-door-policy, by email, or even text or social media (consider the make-up and preferences of your workforce).  The key is providing a reporting method that employees will be comfortable using without fear of retribution.  Be careful about requiring your employees to report grievances to their supervisor – this system will backfire if the employee doesn’t have a good relationship with their supervisor or the grievance is with the supervisor.  Make sure that you document your process in your Employee Handbook, so that employees can quickly and easily reference it.

Addressing complaints

When you receive complaints, you must determine how they should be prioritized and how you should address them.  The three categories (and in order in which you should address complaints) are as follows:

Safety – these are grievances in which the well-being of employees (other others) is at risk. This can include faulty equipment, dangerous work conditions, or any other issue that threatens the safety of your workforce or other stakeholders.

Violations of policies, rules, or laws – these are grievances that relate to company rules or laws that employees feel are being violated by other employees or management.  This can include discrimination, harassment, fraud, etc.

Unreasonable or unfair management practices or behavior – this is for grievances related to expectations, individual treatment, and complaints related to fairness.

Of course, complaints that are made relative to safety and violations of law should take precedence.  Once complaints are prioritized, you want to take the following steps for each grievance:

  1. Acknowledgement – let the employee know that you received their complaint and that you will be looking in to it.
  2. Investigation — it is best that an independent third party (or someone with the greatest degree of removal from the staff) conducts the investigation. This can often be someone in HR (internal or outsourced). During this stage, the investigator will gather information by speaking with the complainant, witnesses, and others who may have relevant information. Systems, email, or other artifacts may be examined to fully understand the situation.
  3. Decision – once all the information has been gathered and reviewed, you need to make a decision – did wrongdoing take place?  Sometimes this can be tricky – if there are no witnesses and a “he-said, she-said type situation,” has arisen, the credibility and work-records of those involved must be taken into consideration.
  4. Action – if the grievance has merit, right the wrong. This may involve reversal of a previous decision, and/or disciplinary action against the individual whom the complaint was levied.  Failure to act quickly in this area can have big impacts on morale.  It’s very important to communicate back to the employee that the complaint was investigated as well as findings (you may need to keep some of the details here at a high level to maintain confidentiality).

While no company wants to receive complaints, the shedding of light on discontent in your company can uncover real problems that you should address to protect your company.  And, addressing the concerns of your employees demonstrates care and accountably, which are key elements in maintaining a positive company culture.

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