David has over 15 years supervisory experience and has extensive knowledge in how to handle personnel issues across many areas.
Complaints From Employees
If you are in a position of authority, you will receive complaints from the employees that work under you. The complaints will range from something very minor in nature, to something very serious. It's up to a supervisor to figure out if the complaint is legitimate and how to respond to it.
Iif you don't have an HR department, then you'll have to handle the situation very carefully. It's not that easy though. Mishandling a complaint can have future and dire consequences. As a supervisor, there are steps you must take to protect yourself, the employee making the complaint, and those affected by the complaint if it's about another person.
This article will cover what you need to do as a supervisor when you receive a complaint from an employee.
Types of Employee Complaints
Issues With Co-Workers
Low Pay and Pay Disputes
Lack of Vacation/Sick Leave
How to Handle Employee Complaints
If you don't have an HR department, or if the complaint is a small one, you may have to handle the complaint yourself. Receiving an employee complaint is the start of the process and can be the most critical one, as the complaint will dictate how you react. Do the following when receiving an employee complaint:
- Listen fully to the complaint. Even if it seems like a frivolous issue, listen completely. This will allow the employee to feel like their voice is heard. Sometimes they don't want any action at all—they just want you to listen.
- Ask lots of questions. During the conversation, ask a lot of questions about the incident. Always remember: "Who, what, when, where, why, and how." You can also paraphrase the complaint and ask if your interpretation is correct to ensure you understand fully. Questions are a great way to ensure accuracy and avoid misinterpretations and inconsistencies.
- Ask for something in writing. This is a very critical piece of the complaint process. After your conversation, request that the person submit something in an e-mail outlining the facts of the complaint. Then, if something arises due to the complaint, you will have written documentation as proof about what was said.
- Advise the person to keep the complaint to themselves. Employees might love to gossip, and they will certainly be hoping for workplace allies...but when it comes to a formal complaint, they must keep it to themselves. In turn, as a supervisor, you need to keep the complaint to yourself.
- Ensure action. Let your employee know that you will follow through. Don't make any further comments (like what you plan to do or when you will do it). Just thank the employee for the information and tell them you will look into the matter.
Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How
When asking questions about an employee's complaint, ensure you cover each of the following to get as many details as possible:
- Who - Who is this incident about? Who was involved? Who knows about it? Who witnessed it?
- What - What happened? What else was happening at the time of the incident? What caused the incident? What proof can be provided that this incident happened?
- When - When did the incident take place? When else could this have happened?
- Where - Where did this incident take place? Where else could this have happened? Where exactly were employees at the time of the incident?
- Why - Why did it happen? Why did the employee come forward with this complaint? Why do they think the incident happened?
- How - How are they feeling after this incident? How has this incident affected others? How can you help them? How can this problem be rectified?
Don't Delay Responding to a Complaint
Time is of the essence when handling employee complaints. The longer you take to address it, the easier it will be for people to forget details, for another mishap to happen resulting in another complaint, etc. I have seen things go from bad to worse because supervisors did not address complaints right away.
How to Investigate Employee Complaints
Serious complaints should always be handled by a Human Resources department, if you have one. If not, you'll need to investigate the issue yourself. Once you receive a complaint, you have to investigate it accordingly. Depending on the complaint, there could be various ways to investigate it, but it should generally be the same each time.
- If there were witnesses to the incident, then talk to all of them. Ask questions along the lines of "who, what, when, where, why, and how". Share as few details as possible to ensure that they provide the information in their own words and you can't be accused of "leading" their response.
- Obtain all relevant documentation. If there are documents, files, computer information, or any other evidence related to the complaint, gather that information to hold in your care.
- Look through all of the evidence. While there could be overwhelming evidence that the incident is true, there could be one piece of evidence that turns everything around. Don't just take the person's word for it, look into everything.
- Talk to the person who made the original complaint again. Once you receive more information and have reviewed the details, ask follow-up questions to the person making complaint just in case they forgot any details. Get clarification if there are any discrepancies.
- Talk to your supervisor. Usually you will need the advice of your supervisor on how to handle a complaint. Present the evidence and your conclusion, and decide what action your company should take in regards to the complaint. Alternatively, you could look into your organization's policies to see how complaints are handled.
Complaints occur when we refuse to accept that things are wrong and we do something about it, even if that something is simply articulating our unease.
— Julian Baggini, British philosopher, journalist, and author
How to Respond to Employee Complaints
There are various steps that must be taken when you are finally get to the point of addressing an employee complaint.
- Take the appropriate action regarding the complaint. If someone needs to be written up, then write them up. If a policy change needs to be implemented, then implement it. The action should be done as quickly as possible so there won't be any future issues.
- Advise the person making the complaint about what action was taken. If the complaint was against another person, then don't go into any details, just state it was addressed. If the problem was a procedural issue or a problem that didn't involve another employee, you can give details about how it was resolved.
- If the complaint was unfounded, then advise the person making the complaint of that. This will allow the employee to know what to do in the future if similar situations arise. Don't make them feel bad about the complaint; try to turn it into a learning experience.
- Move on. Once the complaint has been handled and the issue addressed, move on. Don't dwell on the issue, as this could just make things worse in the long run. However....
- Keep the complaint in the back of your mind. If you see a pattern of the same complaint or the same person making another complaint, you may see another issue that needs to be addressed.
How to Document a Complaint
Thorough and careful documentation demonstrates that you took the complaint seriously. Always follow your workplace's policies for handling complaints and investigations.
- Have them put it in writing. Have them submit an email detailing their complaint. If necessary, have them include all relevant information in terms of dates, times, locations, names, witnesses, repercussions, and details.
- Respond via email. Respond to this email by letting them know you will investigate the matter thoroughly and will get back to them as soon as possible.
- Keep communicating. If the investigation takes longer than you anticipate, send another email ensuring them that action is being taken.
- Send a final email. After you have thoroughly investigated the matter, send them another email letting them know what you found and exactly what actions will be taken.
- Keep it short and sweet. Whenever possible, keep your conversations in writing via email to make sure there is a "paper trail." Keep these emails concise, professional, unemotional, and neutral in tone.
What NOT to Do When an Employee Complains
- Make jokes (even benign ones) with the employee or anyone else about the situation.
- Get distracted while they're talking to you. Turn off your phone and close your office door.
- Show disrespect. Don't belittle their complaint, question their veracity, or do anything to make them feel like you don't take the issue seriously.
- Make the complaint public. Refrain from speaking of the complaint to any other employees.
- Punish. Refrain from taking too-quick disciplinary action against the complaining employee or the person they're complaining about. Take the time to find out what happens before you take any action.
- Take sides. Try to remain neutral and professional but friendly, even after you've investigated thoroughly.
- Play hero. Try to solve the problem: don't play mediator or therapist—that's not your job.
- Gossip. Don't discuss the situation with anyone else at work. It's especially important that you don't gossip or take sides.
- Escalate. Don't suggest the employee hire a lawyer or find a new job. Don't make any drastic suggestions until you know all the facts.
If you mishandle a complaint, what's the worst thing that could happen? Read What Is Workplace Retaliation? And Why Are Employers So Afraid of It?
How should you handle a complaint against you at work?
First, it's important to stay calm, listen fully, and refrain from overreacting. This article, Accused of Wrongdoing at Work: What to Do, will give you more insight into what to do next.
What to do if one employee files a complaint against another employee?
It's important to always remain neutral, and this is especially true when one employee is complaining about another. It is extremely important that you do not take sides and you do investigate the matter thoroughly, as soon as possible. Always involve the HR department, if you have one. If not, then this article He Said, She Said: Who's Telling the Truth in a Workplace Investigation? offers more tips on how to investigate a complaint.
What's the best way to handle employee complaints against managers or supervisors?
If you are a manager or supervisor yourself, you may tend to sympathize with your fellow managers and find that yourself in a conflict of interest. If you have an HR department, it is best to hand the investigation over to them.
How should HR handle an employee complaint?
If you have an HR department, you should direct serious employee complaints to them. An HR department should have a clear and documented protocol about how to handle these issues. That's their job, so it's best to let them handle it.
Biggest Complaint From an Employee?
If you still have questions, check out this list of links to helpful sites with more in-depth and specific answers.
Employee Complaint Investigations: What Human Resources Won't Tell You offers tips and advice about employee complaint investigations based upon a HR department expert's experience as an investigator in corporate human resources.
Summary of the Major Laws of the Department of Labor is a brief description of the major labor laws, including information about wages, hours, workplace safety, competition, and more.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's website has information about how to file discrimination cases and other helpful links, including information about workplace harassment.
How NOT to Handle Employee Complaints
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: How do you handle an employee who constantly criticizes another employees work?
Answer: Advise the employee they need to be concerned about their own work, and not someone else's work. If they see an issue, they can report it to their supervisor, but they shouldn't address it themselves.
Question: How many hours of overtime can an employee work?
Answer: It depends on the laws in whatever particular country. There is no set limit in the United States, for example, but it is required that all hours beyond 40 are paid in overtime. Some places require a minimum of eight hours off between shifts as well, though some may choose to work.
I recommend looking at the laws in your country/state/region to figure that out. However, you can be required to work overtime and may be terminated if you refuse.
Question: What do you do about a manager who talks negatively about employees, to other employees (via text)?
Answer: It's touchy. You can talk to your boss about it, or go to your boss's boss about it, but even then it would be your word against theirs. If you have an HR department, that could be your best bet. Otherwise, you could try to ignore it. But I can tell you right now that managers complain about their employees a lot, though they shouldn't to other employees.
Question: How do I handle employees who constantly complain about their workload?
Answer: You need to engage them to find out why they are complaining about the workload, what barriers are holding them back from completing their duties, etc. Divert the conversation away from their workload and more on how they can manage their duties, what could make it easier, and how they could get their job done. Ask them if their workload were to decrease, would they have another complaint, and then another? It may not even be about the work, it could be some other underlining problem.
The point is, engage the individual, listen to their complaint, try to find a solution without focusing on their complaint directly, and see what happens. If it's a reasonable about of work, tell them. If something can be changed, change it.
Question: What do I do when a co-worker shares private information?
Answer: What kind of information? Unfortunately, if you share something with a co-worker, the trust isn't always there. Talk to your supervisor about it.
Question: Is it illegal to fire someone for receiving multiple/constant complaints against them? These complaints have been documented and were filed by many different coworkers.
Answer: That all depends on where the business is located. Some areas you can fire without cause, other places you have to have caused. However, each time an employee is terminated, you have to figure out if it would hold in court. Assume each and every employee will attempt to sue, so act as if you need to have all of your ducks in a row if you have to go to court. Are the complaints justified? Is there documentation supporting them? Was the employee talked to about it? You will need to prove all of that. Each time an employee is fired, you'll need to assume that you will have to prove in a court of law that the termination was justified.
Question: What to do when employees complain that another supervisor/manager is allowing an employee on his/her shift to "make their own schedule". The claim is that hours are adjusted heavily and the employee rarely works a full shift?
Answer: In situations where an employee complains about another, I say I will investigate it (which I do) and advise it will be handled. I rarely, if ever, provide the results of the investigation.
There could be reasons behind the adjusted hours. There could be a medical reason, personal reason, etc., which the employee is allowed to do. It could be favoritism, yes, but not much can be done about that without someone else higher than that manager stepping in.
Personally, I've had employees work flexible schedules and I even do so in order to get the job accomplished. It's not an uncommon thing.
Question: What do I do if an employee complains that another employee ignores them?
Answer: Depends on the context.
If the other employee ignores them for any work-related matters, then you do need to address it. Tell the other employee that they can't ignore co-workers if they have work related matters to discuss.
However, if the employee isn't doing that and doesn't want to talk to the other employee on a personal level, they are within their right (though it doesn't look good). You'll have to tell the employee complaining that you can't force people to talk to them unless it's related to work.
Question: Is a manager allowed to give a name who wrote complaints on another employee?
Answer: Do you mean give the name to the employee who is being complained about? I recommend you don't do so unless there is some legal reason why you are required to. All you are doing is creating a rift and potentially causing more problems. There is a good chance the person being complained about knows who it is who made the complaint anyways. But I have rarely named who made a complaint unless required to.
Question: How do I handle an employee complaining that another employee gets "too close" to her, but she is asking not to talk to anyone about it?
Answer: The first thing that jumps out at me is that this could be a possible form of harassment. Even if the employee doesn't want to talk to anyone about it, if you know who it is, you can advise them that it has been observed that they are getting too close to other employees and its making people uncomfortable. They may not release they are doing it. Or, if they are, it puts them on notice.
Granted, there are times employees have to be close to one another, so that's going to happen. You may need to try to dig for more details. How is the employee getting too close, what are they doing while they are close, etc. You may have to tell the employee that you want to do something about it, but they need to provide more details and answer questions to make that happen.
Question: Is it appropriate for staff members of a small nonprofit organization to have a direct line of communication with the Board of Directors to voice complaints about the Director? The organization has a whistleblower policy and reporting procedure for alleged harassment, unlawful discrimination, and other misconduct. My question pertains to having an "open-door policy" for staff to lodge general complaints against the Director.
Answer: I don't think it's appropriate, but I don't think it's out of bounds either. It's unusual to have that kind of open-door policy. However, what if something comes up that doesn't fall under the whistle-blower policy? Maybe they want to vent complaints about how the organization is being run and the work being done, not necessarily misconduct. If the Board of Directors knows what they are doing, they will listen to any complaints and react accordingly, realizing people may complain just to complain.
The thing is, is this just a policy as well, or is it done just via word of mouth? Can anyone do it or just select individuals? If it's select individuals via word of mouth, it's highly inappropriate. If it's everyone and there is an official notice on it, I would feel that's well within the bounds of what is appropriate.
© 2013 David Livermore
David Livermore (author) from Bakersfield, California, United States on April 16, 2014:
Happy to hear it!
theBAT on April 16, 2014:
Thanks for this hub. I agree that once the complaint has been properly addressed, it is time to move on. Learn from the experience and keep a record of the complaint for future reference. I learned a lot reading your hub.
Suzie from Carson City on April 15, 2014:
David.....You have presented an excellent step-by-step instructional hub that very nicely covers nearly all points for dealing with complaints from employees.
Although this may qualify as a Supervisor's least favorite duty, as you have stated, it is vital that it is taken care of swiftly, fairly and according to Company Policy.
The responses to your question are quite telling. The highest percentages show that most complaints involve interaction/relationships with "fellow-employees." Isn't this a common problem in practically every work environment everywhere?
Throughout my career, I had to deal with very little of this sort of complaint. However, due the nature of the job, I had a great deal of employee frustration, burn-out and requests for ADVICE. Employees who worked directly under me, came to me in a steady stream to complain about "clients," in terms how to handle them, their issues and their behavior! LOL
No need to mention the fact that the client, being the bread & butter.....continual training, seminars, In-services and resolutions were of primary concern. (not to mention granting time-off for employee R&R) :)
Your hub gives a wonderful format to base resolutions of any sort, resulting in an acceptable and beneficial solution.
This is a must read. Thank you.....UP++ tweeted & pinned.
ShravanKAcharya on April 15, 2014:
Splendid piece of note! Just loved your writing. Keep going. Cheers :)
Mahaveer Sanglikar from Pune, India on April 15, 2014:
Well explained and useful hub, thank you for sharing the insights...
Harry from Sydney, Australia on April 15, 2014:
During my time in full-time work and even managing people I've discovered the biggest gripes from employees are usually over 'favouritism', pays and internal harrasment/bullying .. this is a very informative article as it sums up all your options as an HR person or manager when dealing with a situation like htis ..
You might want to read my hub about 'dealing with difficult workmates'. .and let me know how it is
CraftytotheCore on November 07, 2013:
This hits on so many points. Well-written and great information!
Abhijeet Ganguly from Brampton, Ontario, Canada on November 06, 2013:
Great Article !!!!
Handling and investigating employee complaints form an integral part of HR role. I being an HR understand the nitty- gritty behind the complaint feedback mechanism.
Keep up the good work and check out some of my hubs if you feel !!!