How to Handle Employee Complaints: A Step-By-Step Guide

Dec. 15, 2022

As a business owner, you are legally obligated to investigate employee complaints of harassment, discrimination, retaliation, safety and ethics in a timely manner, according to SESCO Management Consultants.

In addition, "appropriate corrective action is required to be taken by the employer to ensure that illegal actions/behaviors cease immediately," say SESCO officials.

"Responsiveness to a complaint and an investigation will not only yield necessary information and evidence, but it will also enhance the employer's credibility. You simply cannot ignore any type of complaint, whether it is of an illegal nature or not. 

"The investigation process will help identify and resolve internal issues before they become widespread. Since every complaint has a potential to become a lawsuit, employers must investigate every case in a manner in which it can be presented to a court of law."

SESCO suggests following these steps when investigating complaints filed by employees.

Based on SESCO's long history of conducting successful investigations on behalf of employers as well as representing employers before the EEOC, we suggest the following:

Step 1: Ensure confidentiality

"The employer must protect the confidentiality of employee claims to the best of its ability. At the same time, the employer has to conduct a prompt and an effective investigation. Therefore it is reasonable to tell the complainant that you will hold the investigation in confidence to the best of your ability and that information will be shared internally only on a 'need to know' basis."

Step 2: Provide interim protection

One of the first considerations "may be the need to ensure the protection of the complainant. It may be necessary to separate the alleged victim from the accused or even, based on the complaint, suspend with or without pay the accused until the investigation is complete. Also the accused should also be placed on notice that no matter what, there should never be any type of continued harassment or retaliation during or after the investigation."

Step 3: Select the investigator

The investigator should possess the following, according to SESCO officials:

  • An ability to investigate objectively;
  • To have no stake in the outcome;
  • The skills to conduct such an investigation;
  • Strong interpersonal skills, as well as credibility with the complainant;
  • Have attention to detail, and;
  • Be in a position to maintain confidentiality.

"Due to the significant liability as well as potential internal rumor mill and explosive nature of investigations, employers generally use the resources of a firm like SESCO. There are distinct advantages to doing such."

Step 4: Create a plan for the investigation

"This plan should include an outline of the issue, the development of a witness list, sources for information and evidence, interview questions and a process for retaining documentation, such as social media, interview notes, emails, texts, etc."

Step 5: Conduct interviews

"The first interview should be with the complainant. Be very specific in asking, in essence, 'what' happened, who witnessed it or heard it, dates and other facts. Be careful in the conversation to not infer you do not believe the individual. Many times, we will use recording devices. Regardless, reduce the interview to writing and have the complainant sign and date it. Many times, we will also have the complainant reduce the complaint to writing prior to the first interview, so that questions can be asked from there.

"Next, go to the accused, explain the concern and get his or her response. Include the recording device and/or the documentation as in the first interview. Remind the accused or the zero-retaliation expectation.

"Interview witnesses (who) were identified by the complainant or the alleged abuser and maintain the same documentation."

Step 6: Develop a detailed summary

"In addition to the investigative notes, develop a detailed, written summary of the investigation's results." This should include who was interviewed, dates and times "and perspective on the investigation. This will include recommended employer actions."

Step 7: Conclusion

"Once the investigation has been complete and the actions have been confirmed, let the complainant know that the investigation has been complete and that you are taking appropriate action. Please know that the complainant does not need to know what action is being taken. Also know that the complainant many times will expect a termination or other results, such as a severance payment or other potentially inappropriate request.

"At this stage, the employer is only required to take what they feel like is appropriate action - based on a common sense standard - and to do so timely. As necessary, circle back with the accused and as appropriate, take action, which may include an apology, a verbal warning, a written warning or termination, especially if this is not the first complaint or if there are other behaviors coupled with this complaint that deserve such disciplinary action.

"The goal of this whole process is to ensure that if a court, jury or government agency were to investigate the complaint on behalf of the complainant, they would conclude that the employer took the situation seriously, responded immediately and appropriately, and had documented good-faith basis for any action - or no actions -  taken during or as the result of the investigation."

For more information from SESCO Management Consultants, click here.

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