How to Defuse Employee Grievances

An effective, well-balanced disciplinary process does more than provide a means for dealing with employees’ problem behavior. It also gives them an opportunity to speak up (and be heard) when they’re not happy with the way things are going in the workplace. Their complaints are technically known as grievances. Here are suggestions on how to implement a grievance procedure:

  • Offer complaint-reporting options. As a general rule, instruct employees to bring their complaints to the attention of their immediate supervisors. If the complaint involves the supervisor, however, employees should have the right to address the matter with someone outside the established chain of command. In many circumstances, directing complaints through a different channel, such as a trained and designated member of the human resources department, may be appropriate.

  • Stress the importance of prompt response. Everyone in the company who’s responsible for receiving employee complaints should make it a point to address the complaint as promptly as possible. Ideally, an employee should know within 24 hours that you’ve received his complaint and you’re handling it.

    That doesn’t mean you have to provide a complete answer in a day. But a swift initial response demonstrates your concern and commitment to resolving the issue. Of course, determining how long a problem takes to resolve depends on how complicated the issue is.

    How swiftly your company responds is critical when the complaint involves alleged sexual harassment or discrimination. All supervisors and/or managers should be trained immediately to notify you or others in an HR role. They should likewise be trained to promptly escalate complaints of serious workplace safety or health violations or criminal activity. Ignoring any complaint that deals with serious issues greatly increases your company’s exposure to legal action.

  • Report back to the employee. Whether the complaint is substantiated or not, you need to keep the employee who registered it informed of what you’re doing to deal with the situation. If you ultimately find that the complaint isn’t substantiated (“We have no evidence to suggest that someone is poisoning our water supply”), explain why you feel that more action isn’t warranted.

    If the complaint is justified, indicate that corrective action is being taken. Depending on the circumstances, such as workplace safety, you may even want to communicate the nature of the action to the complainant. On the other hand, given privacy considerations, you may want to be careful in terms of communicating the nature of the disciplinary action taken against another employee.

  • Protect the employee from reprisals. Ensure employees that if they follow the company’s recommended procedure for filing complaints, they won’t be penalized for doing so — regardless of the nature of the complaint, as long as it’s offered in good faith.

    When handling a complaint, remind all parties involved of your company’s antiretaliation policy. And if you need to resolve a dispute between an employee and a supervisor, caution supervisors about taking any actions that may be perceived as retaliatory — such as unfavorable work assignments, an inappropriate transfer, or a demotion — while an investigation is underway or shortly after its completion.

It is critical that your company distinguish between complaints of alleged unlawful harassment or discrimination and complaints of other, day-to-day workplace issues. These tips are for addressing the day-to-day personnel problems and workplace issues that may arise.

For complaints of sexual harassment or harassment based on another protected characteristic, or of discrimination, your company needs to have a separate antiharassment/antidiscrimination policy and an established procedure for raising complaints under such policy. Also, there are specific features that must be embedded in such a policy in order to ensure that it complies with applicable federal and, possibly, state or local laws.

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