Don’t Ignore Informal Complaints

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An employee sends you an anonymous letter alleging workplace bullying or makes an ‘off the record’ verbal complaint to their line manager about sexual harassment by a coworker. What do you do?

How does your complaints policy stack up when it comes to dealing with this all-too-common scenario? Complaints handling policies commonly state that workers must make documented formal complaints. Because of this, employers simply assume that a complaint cannot be acted upon if it isn’t in writing. This is incorrect.

Despite the fact that a complaint may be anonymous, light on detail or lacking a complainant who is willing to go on the record, there remains an obligation to investigate all potential health and safety issues including those which could lead to psychological injury such as bullying, harassment and discrimination.

Informal complaints are a common headache for HR and management. But the temptation to sweep them under the carpet should be avoided. Informal complaints may be harder to investigate, but they should be treated no less seriously than a nice tidy signed letter of complaint containing dates, times and bullet points.

The fact that a worker feels reluctant to follow through with a formal complaint should be a warning sign that cannot, and should not, be ignored. Informal complaints are often a sign that, at best, communication is not what it should be and, at worst, there is an environment of fear and general mistrust of management’s ability or willingness to deal with inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

There are several things employers can do to reduce the likelihood of informal complaints:

  • Strengthen independent support mechanisms for complainants so that employees feel safe to speak out.
  • Favour the use of external/independent investigators when complaints are made so that staff know their complaint will be handled in an objective/independent manner.
  • Be clear about how complaints will be handled. Have clear policies and procedures in place.
  • Make it clear that all complaints will be investigated, formal or not, and that the complainant’s identity may need to be disclosed to the respondent regardless of whether the complaint is made informally due to overriding obligations around procedural fairness.

There are also several ways to help persuade a reluctant complainant to formalise their grievance:

  • Assure them that independent/external investigators will be appointed to address their complaint or, failing that, an appropriately trained staff member external to the complainant’s work group and with no social or professional links to the respondent.
  • Let them know that you are taking their grievance seriously and that their assistance will help you affect long lasting positive change in the workplace.
  • Point out that while you support the complainant’s desire to remain anonymous, you also have an obligation to maintain a safe workplace for all employees and that their assistance could help others who may be suffering.

Of course, making a formal written complaint is not always necessary, particularly when the aggrieved party is prepared to try to resolve the matter through various informal means. It may be that the complainant is comfortable with addressing the matter directly with the respondent through mediation for example. In this case, a formal written complaint is not required.

Of course, an informal approach would be inappropriate in cases where the nature of the complaints are serious eg. Physical or sexual assault or where the person is fearful of the respondent. Beginning an informal dispute resolution process however, should not be seen as a barrier to formalising the complaint down the track.