Who’s the first person who usually hears an employee complaint? A manager or supervisor.

Problem is, even experienced managers and supervisors are almost always unqualified to handle the complexities of a complaint investigation. They could easily say or do the wrong thing and give plaintiffs’ lawyers the ammunition they need to file (and win) a lawsuit.

That’s why the managers and supervisors need to understand Rule #1 about handling employee complaints: “PASS THEM ON TO HR A.S.A.P.”

That’s right. Managers need to get some very basic information to establish that the person is actually making a complaint, but shouldn’t try to conduct an investigation on their own.

Here’s a helpful three-step model supervisors can follow when an employee approaches them with a complaint:

  1. Clarify. Ask the employee to describe what happened. Follow up with clarifying questions as necessary. Example: “How many times did Eddie ask you out?” or “How many times did he glare at you?” or “When you say he ‘bumped’ you, what do you mean?” Persist with probing questions until you feel you REALLY understand what happened and how the person REALLY feels.
  2. Listen non-judgmentally. Be careful not to signal that you have an opinion about what’s being said. Avoid comments like, “That doesn’t sound like the Eddie I know” or “Eddie’s harmless.” Be totally impartial. You’re just gathering information.
  3. Factually document the conversation. If possible, ask in advance, “May I take notes while we speak?” You’ll normally get a yes. Take notes, recording just the facts, not your impressions of truth or falsehood. If you were to write down, “Beth sounds like she might be lying” or “Eddie is often misunderstood,” you might create a document that plaintiffs’ lawyers would use AGAINST you in court.

Once supervisors have done this, they should immediately go to HR to report the complaint and hand over their notes. They should resist the temptation to dig deeper or interview others who might provide informatiion about the complaint. That’s HR’s job.

photo credit: h3nr0

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