As your business grows beyond what you can handle alone, you’re going to find yourself with employees to manage. Small business owners wear many hats, and one of those is human resources pro — from hiring to firing to everything in between. Part of your role as a human resources pro is learning how to appropriately address and resolve various employee complaints.
Employee complaints may be small matters, such as scheduling conflicts, wage issues, or concerns about their work load. Alternatively, employee complaints may be huge problems, like illegal behavior, discrimination, or sexual harassment. Even the most minor complaints can lead to workplace tension and reduced productivity. In the worst case scenario, serious employee complaints can result in stressful lawsuits and high-dollar litigation.
As a small business owner, you have a responsibility to both your company and your employees to learn how to address the challenges of responding to your employees’ complaints. Learning how to navigate, address, and defuse complaints will make your company more productive, harmonious, and cost-efficient.
Maintaining a happy and healthy workplace is about more than dealing with employee complaints, but learning how to deal with complaints is going to teach you a lot about dealing with employees and the workplace environment in general. So how do you handle the interpersonal relationships in your small business? Here are four tips for managing employee complaints in a fair, ethical, and consistent manner.
Step 1: Create A Clear And Fair System
Have you ever felt like you were unfairly singled out for punishment? Or that someone else unfairly got the credit for your hard work? No one likes to feel like they’re being treated unfairly. To effectively manage employee complaints, you’re going to need a clear, fair system so that everyone feels like they’re being treated equally in the process. In other words, the most important step for dealing with complaints should happen long before any complaints ever arise.
Start with an employee handbook. It should set out policies about the expectations for employee conduct, timeliness, dress, and other important aspects of employment. It should also set out a clear and fair system for making a complaint and for how those complaints will be dealt with. Transparency is key – your employees need to know that you’ll handle every complaint in the same fashion, regardless of who filed it and whom it was filed against.
You’ll want to include instructions on how to file a complaint (including anonymous complaints, for employees that fear retaliation). Explain how that complaint will be dealt with – the first line of defense may simply be talking to the person the complaint is about or holding a meeting to remind your employees of certain issues and rules. You’ll also need to have a policy for appealing or escalating a complaint; that may mean bringing in a third party (like a mediator) so that there’s no concern about favoritism. Your policy should include keeping ALL employee complaints confidential; it should also include provisions where employees can waive that right in order to address an interpersonal complaint face to face.
You’ll want to include a section specifically dedicated to handling complaints about harassment, abuse, and discrimination. Those types of complaints are not only extremely serious and something you never want your employees to experience, but they also open your business to legal liability. Check with a local attorney to find out what your responsibilities are in terms of addressing those complaints and when you’re required to contact the authorities.
Finally, remember that not all complaints are going to involve only your employees. Some may involve you personally, your actions, or your policies. Make sure that your employees know you will address those issues with the same fair and transparent process as any other and that you want them to feel like they can talk openly to you – it’s better for them and it’s better for business.
Consider drafting a complaint form (either on paper or online) that includes the important provisions of your complaint policy and a place for them to initial or sign to indicate that they understand and accept the process and the privacy rules, as well as space to explain their complaint. That’s a good practice to protect you from liability. You’ll want to keep complete records of each complaint and of the dispute resolution process (again, that gives you legal protection).
For further information on the best practices for documenting your company policies in writing, refer to Why You Should Create an Employee Handbook.
Step 2: Assess the Situation
Your policy on employee complaints is in place, so you already have a plan for how to handle it. When a complaint does come in, the first step is to take stock of the situation. Some complaints may be mundane, but others can be alarming or upsetting. But it’s crucial to keep your composure and never jump to any conclusions. Before you take any serious steps — including termination or suspension — it’s important to understand the full story behind the complaint.
Follow the process you set out in your handbook. Speak to the employee that filed the complaint. Make sure they understand that you’re taking them seriously. Listen to their story, ask questions, and try to really empathize. Get to the bottom of their concerns – are they worried about a policy, a practice, their role in the company, another employee, or something else? And while you’re having this discussion, avoid passing any judgment. Don’t say things like, “I can’t believe that’s happening!” or “How could they do that?” This is the time to gather information, not to react emotionally or show favor to one side of the story. Sometimes just making the effort to let your employee discuss their concerns and validating those concerns can resolve small problems.
If the complaint involves another employee, you’ll also need to speak to that person (or start here, if the complaint was anonymous). In some cases, you may also want to talk to supervisors, witnesses, and other involved parties. That can make the confidentiality issue tricky, so you may consider talking to the employee that filed the complaint about how you plan to proceed. As always, keep it about the facts and not about judgment.
Step 3: Seek A Solution
You have all the information you can get and now you have to arrive at some sort of solution. Sometimes it’s simple – bumping up one employee’s pay to match another, for example, or setting out and enforcing a vacation policy more clearly. Sometimes, however, it’s going to be tough.
If the complaint is between two employees, the solution will depend on the individuals involved. Maybe you need to put the two of them in a room together and help them talk it out. Maybe you just need to separate them and make sure they don’t share shifts.
If the complaint involves a serious violation by an employee, you may find that suspension or termination is the best choice for the company. Consider consulting your attorney before taking that step to make sure you’ve followed all of the procedures required by local law. If your workers are members of a union, you’ll need to work with the union as well.
If the complaint involves a legal issue, again, consult with your attorney. You may be required to turn the issue over to law enforcement. If there is clear evidence (such as video or audio of the event in question), then you’ll want to terminate that person’s employment and pass the evidence on to law enforcement. If there is no clear evidence, you’ll probably want to place the employee accused of harassment, abuse, or another serious offense on paid leave until the dispute can be resolved. This is a tough spot to be in – you want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt but you also don’t want to risk forcing employees to work together only to find out that the allegations are true. Plus, that may be putting your other employees at risk.
Other Types Of Employee Complaints
Sometimes, employee complaints won’t have much (or anything) to do with the business at all. Maybe a mother is dealing with a sick child or a student is struggling to balance their studies and their work. In your employee handbook, make sure to make it clear to your employees that their happiness and satisfaction matter to you and that your door is open. You may be able to help people rearrange their schedules or give them a little bit more leeway with sick leave or personal days in order to help support them through a difficult time. As always, it’s important to try to be as fair as possible in order to avoid upsetting other employees, but a little bit of understanding and compassion go a long way in creating employee trust – plus it’s the right thing to do.
The Bottom Line
Addressing employee complaints is part of running your own small business. You have a responsibility to your employees to be fair, consistent and in full compliance with the law when resolving employee complaints. An open-door, clear policy for addressing employees' complaints sets the tone for satisfied employees and a productive work environment.
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