Dealing with employee complaints proves to be one of the toughest parts of being an HR manager. In worst cases, it means having to face so many things at once: a gap in the company’s policies, an error caused by a colleague (or even by yourself!), a lack of resources, and an emotional fit thrown by a valued employee. You’ll never know what’s coming your way — payroll disputes, a harassment-related grievance, an aggravated conflict between rank-and-files and their supervisors — and yet you have to figure things out with a sound mind and an unwavering composure. Fall short of finding an agreeable solution and you’ll end up having a disengaged workforce or a bad reputation on social media. You might even see a spike in your turnover rate, which, according to research, would cost you around 21% of every outgoing employee’s annual pay.
The right perspective
It makes sense to develop a strong aversion towards complaints, but get this: encouraging your employees to come forward with their workplace troubles can benefit your company. Studies show that organizations saw improvements in workforce effectiveness and employee retention when they allowed their employees to voice out their complaints. It’s also apparent how raised complaints can point you to major business problems that need to be addressed, details you might be too busy to notice. Having complaints may suggest that things are not going well, but the bright side of it is you know what you and the company should improve on. It’s all a matter of perspective; everything boils down to how you’ll see those voiced-out problems and how you’ll work on them.
Dealing with complaints: things to remember
So what’s the right way of dealing with employee complaints? The answer actually depends on the specific type of complaint that you’ll get. However, there’s list of best practices that can apply to almost every scenario out there. We gathered tips from various studies and interviewed HR leaders to see if we could come up with a unified host of solutions. Here are the things that experts keep on reiterating — things that can guide you in managing employee complaints in your organization.
1 ) Develop an effective complaint-handling process — and master it.
The first thing you need to do is to ensure you have a complaint-handling process in place, one that will effectively guide you and the rest of the organization in fielding issues as soon as they are raised. If you already have one, review it. See if it still works or if it needs to be revised. The important thing is that you test your process against a set of standards. As for standards, you can come up with your own or adopt what’s already being used by other organizations. The Australian Human Rights Commission, for example, gives us a list of things that make up a good complaint process.
The complainant and the respondent should both have an opportunity to present their version of the incident or situation. On the other hand, the investigator should be able to avoid bias as he or she works on the case.
Any information related to a complaint should be provided only to those who need to know about it.
The complaint process as well as the possible outcomes of the investigation should be made clear to everyone who is involved.
All employees should be able to secure a copy of, read, and understand the complaint process.
The complaint should be acted upon without undue delay.
If your company’s complaint process has all of these qualities, then you can be more or less sure that you’ll be able to breeze through any complaint thrown your way. Take note, however, that having a process in place shouldn’t hinder you from willingly resolving issues that are casually or informally brought to your attention. In fact, some experts encourage having an informal complaint procedure, something that’s supposed to save you time and energy. Such a procedure comes naturally if your company implements an open-door policy. In the end, we can all agree that different company cultures call for different complaint-handling processes. The important thing is you put together something that will help you brave a storm of complaints when they come.
2) Document clearly and comprehensively.
Aside from encouraging employees to speak up, you should also ask them to write things down. Make sure you’ll have retrievable references to use as you handle their complaints. Not having a system for recording complaints weakens your process’s trustworthiness and keeps you from arriving at a fair decision.
Having a complaint documentation form makes it easier for your employees to put their concerns into writing. It also protects your organization from liability. If this documentation approach strikes you the ideal way to record complaints in your company, then you should know the right questions to ask. There’s the obligatory four Ws and one H.
- What is the complaint about?
- Where and When did the incident take place?
- Who are involved?
- How did the reported incident happen?
Some HR managers also acknowledge the importance of adding another W: What is the expected outcome of the complainant? Adding this question lets you inform complaining employees on what can and can’t be done (based on their answer) ahead of time. It also gives you more insights on the intentions behind the complaint.
3) Have an organized decision-making process.
An organized decision-making process prevents you from making hasty judgments and unfairly dismissing complains. Seasoned HR experts are quick to give us helpful tips on how to avoid premature resolutions. If your organization has yet to put together a system for investigating or acting upon complaints, then these quick tips will see you through.
- Never rush to a decision and take sides immediately, especially if you have more than one party to talk to.
- Probe for specific facts when presented with generalities.
- Repeat the entire issue to the complainant and make sure you’re on the same page.
- Don’t just refer employees to the chain of command if they informally approach you with a complaint.
- Set proper expectations, especially on WHEN and HOW the complaint will be dealt with.
Aside from getting enough time and knowledge that will enable you to come up with a fair decision, working on employee complaints in a systematic manner gives your people the impression that you’re taking their issues seriously. And that’s something you can’t afford to skip — especially if the involved parties consist of employees you can’t afford to lose.
4 ) Keep your own emotions in check.
As commonsensical as this tip sounds, experts agree that it is often overlooked by HR managers whose job entails fielding employee complaints. It’s a rule you can’t do away with. With complaints to raise, employees will most likely be emotional once they decide to reach out. To avoid adding insult to the injury, it’s wise to keep your cool and be objective no matter what a complainant says or does.
Reflecting upon the following questions before or even as you speak with a complaining employee will help you maintain the ideal mindset to have in the face of workplace complaints.
- Am I growing too hardened towards employee complaints to the point that I’d ignore or dismiss them prematurely when they come?
- Am I emotionally prepared to hear a complaint? If not, what can I do to keep my personal issues at bay?
- Do I have interests to protect in the issue that led to the complaint? Am I at fault? What can I do to steer clear of my bias while I talk to the employee and act upon his or her concern?
- Will I tend to sound defensive or accusatory in my responses? What do I need to clear my head, calm down, and avoid letting out any off-putting gesture?
- Does this complaint sound too familiar for me to immediately jump to a decision or sound scripted as I talk to the complaining employee?
Let’s admit it: it’s hard to keep your own emotions in check when you’re overworked or when an enraged and emotionally unstable employee comes up to you at a really bad time. But that’s what separates a great people manager from an amateur one: the ability to make employees feel listened to and juggle other tasks all at the same time.
But the best tip yet: Automation
All of the tips above should guide you in dealing with employee complaints. But just imagine: What if you can prevent complaints before they arise? What if your company has a tool that makes all your work easier and helps you address problems in a more timely manner? What if your employees have a simpler and quicker way of alerting you about common concerns like time record or pay disputes?
All of the studies and HR experts that we consulted have one thing to say: Automation is the key to avoiding workplace complaints and having a more engaged workforce. We’re lucky to live at time when almost everything can be done in near instant and with just a few keyboard strokes. To achieve maximum productivity without taking employee issues for granted, a number of HR teams have taken advantage of human capital management (HCM) systems.
Depending on their primary features, some HCM systems can help you track your employees’ attendance and productivity. Some have advanced self-service tools that let your employees file requests and complaints in a quick, organized, and no-need-for-confrontations scheme. Others enable you to do time-consuming tasks like payroll processing and disbursement with just a push of a button, giving you more bandwidth for important bucket-list items such as strategic planning, recruitment, and employee engagement initiatives.
In the end, we simply need to remember that employees feel valued when their complaints are effectively dealt with. They’ll report to work feeling inspired, secure, and ready to take on the day’s challenges. They’re the cogs and gears that keep the business running, and as HR manager, you’re tasked to deliver the necessary repairs and reinforcements.