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Employee Complaint Investigations: What Human Resources Won't Tell You

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with applied experience in corporate human resources and consulting.

Other employees may share your problem and you just don't know it. How much do you trust the Human Resources to provide complete and accurate information?

Other employees may share your problem and you just don't know it. How much do you trust the Human Resources to provide complete and accurate information?

Workplace Investigations: Observations From an HR Insider

Are you an employee who has been accused of workplace wrongdoing? Alternatively, are you thinking about filing a complaint with your HR department or corporate compliance hotline? If so, you may not have a practical understanding of what goes on behind the scenes. This is especially true if you have never been involved in an internal complaint investigation.

While all companies have different processes for managing complaints, here is a list of key observations, based on my years as a corporate HR Investigator.

Following the list, I've included specific advice about how to file a complaint against a coworker, customer, vendor, or manager.

What I Will Discuss

  • Tips and observations about employee complaint investigations based upon my experience as an investigator in corporate human resources.
  • Specific tips for how to file your own complaint against a coworker, customer, vendor, or manager.
  • What to do next if your complaint isn't successful the first time.

Highlights of the Employee Complaint Process

  • Be clear when describing the issue that prompted your complaint. Human Resources codes each case (discrimination, sexual harassment, etc), and it's important that your case gets the right code so it gets the proper attention.
  • If you don't feel you're getting good service from your HR investigator, find out more about them, in a low-profile manner, and document your communications with him/her. With sufficient reason, you may request another investigator.
  • Ask upfront for an estimate of how long the case should take to resolve and arrange for periodic updates. If you don't hear anything, check in.
  • Watch the tone and content of emails you send to investigators. They are likely keeping records of their communication with you. Be responsive to questions and don't change your story.
  • Ask clarifying questions if the company tells you to keep your matter confidential, particularly if you are a nonsupervisory employee. Who are they specifically forbidding you from discussing the matter with? (The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that companies cannot automatically request that employees refrain from discussing the matter with other employees.)
  • Keep documents, details, and witnesses to support your claim.
  • If you have a lot at risk related to your complaint, consider consulting an attorney.
  • Your relationship with the HR investigator is a business one. Treat it as such. They are not there to be your friend.
Before you file that complaint with your employer, do you know what the complaint process involves?

Before you file that complaint with your employer, do you know what the complaint process involves?

How the Complaint Process Works

You're in the Database

If you are assigned a case number, your complaint was probably entered into a computer database. The company tracks case details such as name, job title, and contact information for the complainant, Person Complained About (PCA), and any named witnesses.

Additionally, the computer record captures a summary of the allegations you made. It can be pulled up years later. Who can access it now? Well, plenty of interested parties.

Your case may be shared with a number of key players who "need to know."

Your case may be shared with a number of key players who "need to know."

Who Is Informed About Your Complaint?

You trust HR to share your complaint with key personnel on only a "need-to-know" basis. But here's the kicker: because executives desperately want to know about compliance and people issues that affect their department, this "need to know" list can become quite extensive.

Too many people may be in the loop when HR is unable to effectively push back against unnecessary requests from nosy executives. Depending on the nature of your complaint and the politics in your organization, the distribution list can include a long list. This includes executives both inside your department and out, plus employees in the Law department, personnel in Audit, Finance, IT, Security, Compliance, and multiple layers of HR. That's a lot of inquiring minds crawling all up in your confidential business!

Who Else Shares Your Complaint Issue?

If only you knew how many complaints mirror your own! The truth is that you're probably not alone, although it can sure feel that way.

HR tracks, counts, and reports on complaint data, and they typically use a labeling scheme to code allegations (e.g., theft, sexual harassment). This permits data analysis on large numbers of complaints. For example, the company may look at trends in the number and types of discrimination cases for this year versus previous years.

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Of course, how HR codes your case is important. Hopefully, you were very clear about what issue prompted your complaint. Why is that important?

Other employees may share your problem, but you just don't know it.

Other employees may share your problem, but you just don't know it.

Why Your Complaint's Code Is Important

In the face of significant pressure from top executives, sometimes HR management re-codes "borderline" cases, so the numbers don't look quite as bad. For example, an allegation of discrimination might become a generic management conduct issue. This is such an ethically slippery slope! And it's how systemic problems are swept under the rug.

Is it Possible to Stay Anonymous?

If you make an anonymous complaint, a good HR Investigator can often logically deduce who you are. That's simply good detective work!

Your Information May Not Be Protected

HR may routinely email detailed investigation reports to one another or executives that are unencrypted and not password protected. That's your information they're handling sloppily.

HR employees may accidentally leave materials on copying machines and printers or displayed on computer screens when they leave their desks "for just a moment." The investigator might even take your case file home. File materials may contain information that is not only personally identifying but also very sensitive, putting you at risk in more than one way.

How Safe Is Your Information?

Your information may be safe with HR ... or not.  If HR works in open officespaces, there may be many opportunities for passersby to overhear   conversations about you or to see your personal data.  That hardly feels confidential now, does it?

Your information may be safe with HR ... or not. If HR works in open officespaces, there may be many opportunities for passersby to overhear conversations about you or to see your personal data. That hardly feels confidential now, does it?

Executives Are Treated Differently

You suspected this was true. Executives and other special people are often treated differently than you. Their investigations are often faster, more discreet, and more informal.

When they misbehave, their consequences are typically less severe and poorly documented. Even when serious misbehavior is substantiated, they may have a broader range of face-saving options (e.g., early retirement, a mutual resignation agreement). Sadly, instead of holding them to higher standards, HR representatives often do the opposite.

Your Case Will Be Talked About

Your case may be discussed in internal HR team meetings or special meetings with Law, Audit, Compliance, Executives, or others. However, it's not a gossip session; it's a business meeting about your case. There can be a discussion about the facts of your case, findings, and recommended action steps.

What If You Get a Bad Investigator?

There are investigators who are good at their job and others who are not. Your investigator may

  • be poorly trained or inexperienced
  • have a performance issue himself/herself
  • suffer HR issues of his or her own.

Some companies rotate their HR employees through various HR sub-specialties (e.g., Benefits, Training), and you may have been assigned the new investigator who doesn't know EEO law or company policy very well.

If you don't seem to be getting good service, find out more about the investigator in a low-profile, respectful manner. Also, be sure to document your communications with him or her. With sufficient reason, you might also request another investigator.

What If HR Is Swamped With Complaint Investigations?

There are a number of factors that could affect how long your case takes to be investigated. Case volume tends to peak at certain times (i.e., during performance evaluation season, layoffs, reorganizations).