How to handle informal complaints

Take five guide - How to handle informal complaints

Resolving an employee complaint can be as simple as having a conversation, but sometimes they are symptom of something bigger that may require formal action.

To help you navigate this challenging area, here are five tips from our team.

1. Address informal complaints in a fair and timely manner

Any complaint, regardless of whether it is expressed as ‘off the record’, should be treated seriously and dealt with fairly.

In order to achieve this, you should ensure managers are trained in how to recognise and deal with such situations. Ignoring the concern or dealing with it in an aggressive or uncaring tone is only likely to antagonise the situation and lead to bigger problems down the line.

Sometimes the most serious matters are raised informally by an employee who is perhaps too embarrassed to make a formal complaint, so should always be dealt with in a considered, sympathetic manner. For example, a female employee whose boss makes an inappropriate comment at the work Christmas party, may not feel comfortable raising a formal complaint. Yet, the matter has potentially serious ramifications and should be handled carefully.


2. Refer to your company policies

It’s always important to refer to your company policies around disciplinary and grievance, anti-bullying and harassment and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), and to make sure these are regularly reviewed and updated.

Usually a grievance policy would instruct employees to go to their line manager with any concerns in the first instance, or if the grievance concerns the line manager, a more senior manager if possible.

Your company policies will usually set out whether, due to the nature of the complaint, you should carry out an investigation, the extent of which will vary from case to case. Many firms’ grievance policies  state that the company will always investigate any allegation of discrimination or may refer employees to the anti-bullying and harassment policy where appropriate. If so, an investigation must be undertaken.


3. Determine what action should be taken

The first step is to assess the nature of the complaint and let this dictate how you go forward. It’s not always clear when it comes to deciding what action, if any, you should take, which is why it’s important to treat every case on an individual basis.

It’s important to determine whether the employee is just looking for a sympathetic ear, or whether there is something more to their complaint. If they are adamant they do not want their complaint to be taken further (i.e. a formal process), find out what it is they are looking for and make it clear you will not be taking action unless they tell you otherwise.

You might be able to resolve the issue by holding an informal meeting with the people involved. Before arranging this, you should meet with everyone separately first. Make sure they’re all willing to meet together to try to resolve the complaint.  

We recommend keeping a record of any conversations in case the issue happens again. In some cases, an informal preliminary investigation may be appropriate. This could include a fact-finding mission – assessing documents and timelines to establish whether a further investigation should take place.


4. Formalise the complaint if necessary

If the matter is serious, consider whether the employee can be persuaded to formalise their complaint. Reassurance that they will not be treated unfairly or detrimentally if they make a complaint in good faith can help.

If there is sufficient evidence of bullying and harassment, for example, it may be appropriate for you to treat the off-the-record complaint as a grievance and try to resolve the matter formally irrespective of the employee’s wishes.

Just remember if a formal investigation is needed, the same duty of care is owed to the complainant and the accused. The accused should always have the opportunity to respond to the allegations in full.

In general, be wary of offering an employee anonymity if formalising the complaint, as this is likely to be unreasonable in all but a few cases.


5. Encourage employees to speak up

It is always difficult for employers to investigate in a situation where employees feel unable to raise a concern, particularly if an employee has approached a manager and asked for it to remain confidential.

Managers should be made aware in training that they should report any informal complaints to HR, and seek their advice.

You can take steps to encourage employees to speak up without fear of reprisals, including giving company-wide training and making it clear support is available at the most senior levels of the business.

Also, if employees see that the business takes action to address informal complaints, they will feel more confident about raising any concerns they may have in the future.


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