3 key steps to handling workplace complaints

ManagementIt’s not uncommon to think of whistle-blowers as those looking to make a splash – and a name for themselves – by running off to some government agency whenever they perceive wrongdoing.

But that could be a misconception. Recent research suggests that when it comes to handling workplace complaints, most whistle-blowers:

  • Never intended to go outside the company with their concerns, and
  • Felt pushed to go outside because they were ignored.

In short, if someone in-house had just listened sooner, the employer could have saved a lot of aggravation and trouble later.

What this  indicates is the problem often isn’t about the complaining employee; it’s about the person who fails to step in and communicate with the employee in a way that makes a difference.

Why does that happen?

Bad assumptions

One reason – and one mistake managers make is assuming complaints that seem so obviously off-base don’t need to be addressed.

For example,  someone makes a dumb comment or does something insensitive and a manager shrugs it off, until the behavior blows up into a charge of discrimination or sexual harassment.

Or someone who had no shot at a promotion begins to believe that the failure to move up the ladder stems from something other than poor performance or a lack of skills, and they get ignored, too.

It’s easy to say they’re just troublemakers who are looking to embarrass the company and maybe realize some monetary gain, right?

But that is usually not the case, according to a study by funded by Dell and URS. If found:

  • Only about 2% of employees go outside the organization as a first reaction to perceived wrongdoing
  • 56% of those who reported problems first took their complaints to someone they knew and trusted inside the company, such as a direct supervisor or HR manager
  • Only about 5% of employees said they would engage in whistleblowing or a lawsuit for the sheer monetary reward, and
  • Whistle-blowing and going outside the company to complain – or sue – tend to happen less often among companies that are struggling financially, suggesting that employees are reluctant to add to company problems at a time of financial difficulty.

It seems what people really want is someone to hear them out when they have a complaint about bias, harassment, safety, finance, or some other concern.

Just don’t ignore them.

Here are three key things to remember:

  1. Don’t go by reputation. A common problem pops up when someone who’s made groundless complaints or charges before then makes another complaint. Treat every complaint as if it’s a legitimate one. The latest complaint could be a valid one.
  2. Do let employees know you’re looking into it, and keep letting them know. A mistake: The supervisor launches into a full investigation but never tells the complaining employee about how things are progressing. In that instance, the employee will assume the worst – that the matter has been dropped or ignored.
  3. Don’t put it off. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied. Within reason, and as your schedule allows, look into the complaint and get a resolution as quickly as possible.

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