How often do Organizational Leaders, Human Resources, and direct supervisors get accused of ignoring problems, taking sides, or playing favorites? It’s common for an employee to feel that unless a person is fired, or publicly flogged, not enough has been done to remedy a problematic situation. Complicating matters further, Human Resources (and other authority figures in the workplace) are bound by confidentiality and often cannot reveal how they are handling an issue.
Allowing this conundrum to remain brings some employees to believe that sharing information with management does nothing to help, yet leaves them exposed. Naturally, they will stop telling you about their concerns even when they continue to be impacted by them. Morale will drop, workplace relations suffer, and unplanned turnover will increase. In some cases, an employee will feel violated and, if they happen to be of a protected class, may file a grievance or a lawsuit claiming discrimination or a hostile work environment.
What can you do? While the law may leave you feeling your hands are tied, here are five things you can, and should, do when hearing a complaint.
- Guide them to resolve it themselves.Many complaints leaders, HR, and managers hear arise due to workplace relational issues. In other words, the problem is not about the work, but about how two (or more) people are working together. Attempting to resolve these issues for others can quickly appear as side-taking and favoritism. Instead, learn about the issue (see step 1), then guide the person with strategies to handle it themself. Your way of supporting them is to provide mentoring, engage in role-play or practice activities, and, when the comfort level is too compromised, offer to be present when the concerned party approaches the source of their complaint. You can find detailed guidance on this in the book Find Fix Fill Your Leadership Gap (see Chapter 11).
- Listen to both sides. If the concerns cannot be addressed by guiding one party, you must make the time to hear both sides. Treat it less like an investigation, and more like a general concern about the current situation between the individuals. Beyond the balance this demonstrates, what you learn from hearing the other person’s perspective may be essential to getting issues resolved.
- Take notes.Not copious notes, just enough to show you’re truly listening, concerned, and trying to keep track of the situation. Remember if it matters to them, they need to know it matters to you too. It’s often good to be upfront with this, stating that you will take notes because the concerns they’re sharing matter.
- Keep them informed of next steps. This step is more directed at the person who made a complaint, but often can include both sides. Communicate what you’re going to do (generally), and why. Perhaps it’s not appropriate to act on a first-time concern, but share that you are taking notes and plan to keep an eye on the situation. Should the issue require further intervention, you can simply offer that you will be taking action but, due to confidentiality, you cannot disclose any other details.In either situation, be honest about your decision-making.
- Tell them to keep you informed.This may be the most important step as it assures the concerned party (and perhaps both sides) that you do want to help and are not ignoring their concerns. Urge them to come to you if the situation continues or worsens. Remind them that you cannot be of help if you are not aware of the problem. Bonus step – Go to your employee(s) to check in, if they have not come to you.
By responding to complaints in this manner, you will better control morale, turnover, and issues of conflict in the workplace.