Update HR Policies to Handle Workplace Complaints

New Year’s resolutions are already in the rear-view mirror for 2021, but it’s not too late to end the first quarter with progress on a different goal: updated workplace complaint policies.

Every employer should coordinate with the company’s human resources department or an external consultant to review current policies. Putting your internal complaint policies down in writing helps clarify employee expectations, lets employees know they have a voice, and ensures consistency. Being prepared before a complaint arises can mean the difference between a matter handled internally and one that ends up being resolved through litigation, where documentation will be even more important.

Here are some key points every employer should keep in mind when creating or updating corporate complaint policies:

  • Complaint policies should allow for more than one reporting method and reporting chain. While employers may request a written complaint, they are on notice even when a report is only verbal. In addition, policies should allow for reports to be made to different individuals in the organization, not only within an employee’s chain of command or only to HR. When an employee refuses to document a complaint in writing, the person receiving the complaint should take notes about the complaint so that there is documentation for the investigative file. Documentation should begin with the first disclosure.
  • Complaint policies should make clear that the company will not allow any form of retaliation against an employee who files a complaint or one who participates in an investigation. The policy should make clear that retaliatory conduct can lead to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.
  • Complaint policies should make clear that all complaints will be investigated. However, that does not mean that every investigation will be the same. Different complaints will require different levels of investigation, but those differences should be by design, based on the complaint.
  • Complaint policies should NOT promise confidentiality. The policy should make clear that the employer will keep the complaint as confidential as possible, but in the course of interviewing relevant witnesses, other individuals are likely to find out about the allegations.

In addition to a complaint policy, employers should be sure that they are prepared to conduct a prompt, thorough and effective investigation of the complaint. The investigation will require, at a minimum, interviews of all involved, including the employee filing the complaint, the accused and any witnesses. All such interviews should be documented. Including another staff person to take notes may be advisable as the company works to ascertain what happened through a series of detailed questions. While conducting interviews, employers should avoid lending informal legal advice to any party involved in the complaint. Investigators should avoid “siding” with either party and should be mindful of actions that could give the appearance of bias.

Record keeping is critical in the management of employee complaints. Keep a specific file for records, interview notes and follow-up. Determination of appropriate action, including disciplinary measures, should also be documented. Follow up with managers as necessary and let employees know of next steps to take if they suspect retaliation.

Keeping policies up-to-date and responding promptly to issues as they arise are practices that should be encouraged throughout all levels of management. Employee productivity and retention are associated with workplaces that cultivate a positive culture.

Prioritizing policy updates is more than a matter of going through the motions. It is a critical part of doing business that protects both employees and the organization. Leave no doubt that you care about your employees’ well-being as well as standards of behavior that can have legal consequences for those involved.

This article first appeared in The Journal Record on February 12, 2021, and is reproduced with permission from the publisher.


Practice Area:

Labor & Employment