7/1/2010 -

“If your phone don’t ring, it’ll be me.” George Jones.

Week 1 . . . Dustin the Department Manager is sitting in his office reviewing the time cards of his employees, when suddenly Billy walks in, his countenance displaying an obvious state of personal agitation. “I don’t think this place is fair. It’s obvious the guys in the other department get treated better than me!” “What do you mean?,” Dustin asks, “Give me an example.” Billy can’t be more specific. He just “thinks” the other guys are treated better and he’s mad about it.

Week 2 . . . Dustin is once again in his office, this time reviewing and answering his email, when Heather walks in, upset, and begins to talk. “I’m tired,” she says, “of that fellow Wilson looking me up and down every time I pass by his work station! He has a creepy look on his face and he makes me feel very uncomfortable!”

Week 3 . . . Dustin, again. He’s working on a report for his boss when Robert comes in the door, mad as a hornet and visibly shaking. “Have you seen this cartoon?,” he asks?

And he shows Dustin a cartoon with a racial picture and a racial epithet.

In each of these situations, we have an employee who has complained and Dustin is asking himself some tough questions. “Which of these complaints is the more serious?,” he wants to know, and “How do I handle them?” Most supervisors and managers receive complaints like these on a regular basis and we know that, according to a variety of employment regulations, employees have the protected right to complain about wages, benefits and working conditions. Plus, according to Generally Accepted Principles of Human Resources Management, good employers would like for employees to tell them if there is a problem at work, on the basis that it’s better to find out about a problem so you can fix it, rather than not knowing and having it get worse. Indeed, Seay’s Second Rule of Employment Thermodynamics says that employee problems left alone always get worse, they never get better.

Good employers don’t leave this to chance. Good employers institute policies and procedures that provide a systematic way for employees to complain and they communicate them clearly and regularly. An Open Door Policy and an Employee Complaint Procedure are examples. Other employers conduct periodic employee opinion surveys, which have the twin values of (a) providing information about how employees feel and what they think and (b) serving as a “steam valve” for employee dissatisfaction, legitimate or otherwise. Still other employers have an employment “Hot Line,” which employees can call anonymously. One hospital in Virginia has a Red Box where employees can ask any question they wish – no question is off limits – with a guarantee of an answer on the bulletin board in 48 hours.

So, if an employee does decide to complain, how do we decide how serious it is and how do we handle it? Here are 5 key principles to remember.

Sandy’s Suggestions for Successful Solutions

1. Take all complaints seriously, even ones which seem to have little or no merit. We live in a litigious employment environment and we can’t afford not to take all complaints seriously. A complaint may seem to have little merit at first but, upon investigation, you may uncover something more serious. In addition, if you don’t take all complaints seriously, employees may lose faith in the system and not use it at all. In one case, an employer did not take a complaint seriously because the employee was a chronic complainer and none of the other employees liked him. Later, the employee filed a complaint with a federal enforcement agency and the employer found himself in the midst of a much larger issue, all of which could have been avoided by taking the compliant seriously in the first place.

2. Some complaints are serious at the starting line, particularly complaints about protected categories such as race, religion, sex, ethnicity, age, etc. If an employee comes to you with this kind of complaint, it is imperative to take action immediately by conducting a full, comprehensive and swift investigation. More and more employers are using a third party to conduct these investigations, on the basis of objectivity, efficiency and thoroughness. Plus, if a federal enforcement agency looks into the matter, their representatives may regard a third party investigation as a positive mark for the company and this may help you toward a favorable conclusion.

3. Time is of the essence. We should complete the investigation quickly, within a time frame of 2-7 days, if possible. “If ‘t’were done when ‘tis done, ‘t’were well it were done quickly,” the Thane of Cawder tells us.

4. Employees have the protected right to complain about wages, benefits and working conditions. This means that an employer may not take any negative or punitive action against an employee for filing a compliant. This is called “retaliation” and an employee is protected from retaliation, even if the complaint itself has no merit. Sometimes, this makes it very difficult to dismiss employees who have filed a complaint. Seay’s First Rule of Dismissing Employees says, “It’s not so much what you do as it is how you do it.”

5. Document everything completely, thoroughly and in great detail. Documentation is your defense, in the event of an investigation. You will need to show that you took the complaint seriously, that you investigated the complaint and that you took appropriate action, based on your findings.

For best results, Seay Management recommends that you take all complaints seriously, conduct a full and comprehensive investigation as quickly as possible and take action based on your findings. If you have any question about what to do when an employee complains, call Sandy or your Seay Management consultant immediately for solid, reliable and straight-from-the-shoulder advice and guidance on how to resolve the matter promptly and in your best interests. We appreciate having you as a friend and client of our firm.

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