6 Tips About How HR Can Best Handle Employee Complaints

You Can Deal With Employee Complaints Even When They're Subjective

This is how HR should deal with employee complaints.
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As a human resources professional, you may wonder how to respond to employee complaints, especially if you get one or two every day either in person or delivered on an employee complaint form. Depending on the gravity of the situation, you may be able to address the complaint then and there or you may find it necessary to get others involved.

Examples of Common Complaints

Employee complaints run the gamut between serious allegations that require official action and perceived wrongs with little or no substance. They often stem from employee perceptions, though, and are relatively easy to resolve.

"My manager is mean to me. He yells at me in front of other coworkers and tells me to do my job."

"My boss is always looking over my shoulder. I don't like it. She times my breaks and stands behind me watching what I do."

"At our last department meeting, they told us to follow the chain of command instead of going to HR to complain.”

The thing about employee complaints like this is that they're subjective. For instance, take the example “My manager is mean to me. He yells at me in front of other coworkers and tells me to do my job.”

  • Is the supervisor actually mean? Some supervisors are, of course. Others are not mean; they're just dealing with problem employees.
  • Is the supervisor yelling or just speaking? People have very different perceptions of yelling. Some people take any form of criticism as yelling. But sometimes supervisors do yell, and it's not appropriate behavior.
  • What about telling the employee to do her job? Is she slacking off? Or is the manager nitpicking or giving unclear instructions? Is the command “do your job” about the employee playing on her phone, or is it a response to the employee's complaint about a safety violation?

    It's critical that you don't become too hardened to employee complaints, because your most important job is to help the business. If you ignore a complaint that a manager is yelling and it turns out that the manager truly is yelling, turnover may increase or customers might overhear and that's damaging to the business.

    Be careful about telling people that they always have to go through the chain of command before complaining. For example, a sexually harassed female may not feel comfortable going to her male supervisor's boss to complain about the harassment. In this case, the policy of always following the chain may result in continued harassment and legal liability for the company.

    How to Field Employee Complaints

    There are many approaches to handling employee complaints, but six general strategies form the basis for investigating possibly subjective complaints.

    Get to know your management/supervisory team. You need to know that Jane is prone to yell, Steve is the nicest guy ever but allows his staff to walk all over him, and Karen doesn't have a clue what goes on with her staff.

    You can't get this information just by talking one-on-one with the management staff. You need to pop in and out. This isn't because you're managing these people—you're not. It's because you need to know what's actually happening.

    Find out what's really going on. When an employee says, “My manager is always watching me,” figure out what that means. Ask, “What do you mean when you say that your manager is always watching you?” and “Why is this a problem for you?” You may find out that the employee is just whining.

    Then again, you may find out that the supervisor is hovering inappropriately over a particular employee or that the employee hasn't been properly trained. You won't know until you ask.

    Ask, “What do you want me to do about that?” Sometimes people just want to vent. They want to say, “I'm frustrated. I'm in a dead-end job, my supervisor is annoying, and I'm tired of working 10-hour days for low pay.”

    But sometimes they really want help with a problem. It's important to differentiate between the two situations—but critical if you want to effectively respond to employee complaints.

    Keep your door open. It's a great policy to encourage employees to solve most of their problems themselves. An HR manager is not a therapist or a parent. But if you turn people away, you'll miss valuable or even critical information. An open-door policy is always recommended.

    Be careful about notifying the supervisor or manager. Sometimes this is fine. But always let the employee know that you will inform his supervisor. If you don't, he will feel betrayed. Just because HR managers aren't therapists doesn't mean that employees don't expect total confidentiality from them.

    Many do and are shocked when they find out otherwise. Don't let this happen. Sometimes the employee may say, “No! Don't tell my supervisor.” In this case, you'll have to decide whether it's necessary.

    For instance, if the employee complaint is, “My supervisor always tells me how to do my job!” you can ask, “Are you always doing what you're supposed to be doing?” If the answer is, “No, but neither is Eric,” you can simply advise her to try doing her job all the time and ignoring her coworkers. No discussion with management is needed.

    On the other hand, if the complaint is about racial discrimination, you must clearly communicate that you have to investigate and that certain people will have to know. If you're able to handle everything by talking to the employee, there's not always a reason to tell his manager and possibly damage the employee-manager relationship.

    Remember, minor incidents are often huge for employees. When you're dealing with a lot of entry-level people, you have to understand that issues you take for granted, they can't. For example, an exempt, professional-level employee taking an extra 15 minutes at lunch is probably not a big deal.

    But a brand-new waitress in the middle of her three-month probationary period could find herself unemployed for doing the same thing. You know your boss isn't likely to fire you for a minor infraction, yet someone who's new to the workforce can't always make an accurate assessment of just how serious a situation is.

    The job of HR is more of an art than a science. You can't always do the perfect thing every time because you're dealing with imperfect employees. Listening and taking the time to learn about your employees are the keys to your success.


    Suzanne Lucas is a freelance journalist specializing in Human Resources. Suzanne's work has been featured on notes publications including Forbes, CBS, Business Insider and Yahoo.