Complaints, and those making them, can be hard to deal with at the best of times, from tiresome retirees with nothing better to do except wage a personal war against their local government, to customers whose level of entitlement and expectations exceeds any business’ ability to deliver. But when it comes to workplace complaints, managers need to be particularly savvy in order to avoid a complaint escalating into a lengthy and difficult legal matter.
BAL Lawyers’ director of employment and investigations, Gabrielle Sullivan, who recently spoke on the company’s HR Breakfast Club podcast, on episode Dealing with Difficult Complaints, says there are some simple but important steps to take to address complaints within the workplace.
Ideally, complaints should be addressed as soon as they arise.
“If the complaints handling process is poorly managed, particularly by delay or avoidance, a complaint that was legitimate doesn’t go away – it just gets worse and it escalates,” says Gabrielle. “In terms of some strategies to address complaints in the workplace, number one is do something to address the complaint.”
She recommends acknowledging you have received the complaint, outlining the process you intend to follow and then keeping the person making the complaint up to date.
The next step is to work out what is the central problem.
“The person making the complaint may not be their best advocate and among a litany of concerns, deep down buried on page nine might actually be the core mischief, and surrounding it is a whole lot of other grievances that can cause unnecessary escalation,” says Gabrielle.
The other thing that helps is some discipline in the complaints management process.
“We can’t necessarily help the factors that have led to it, but we can help how we manage this process,” says Gabrielle.
“If you get a complaint – for example, that someone is a bully – before you launch into what could be a very long-winded and difficult process, put some thought and effort into the complaints management process. Find out what exactly is going on.
“Ask the person who has made the complaint for specifics right down to how, when and where. If you bring some discipline into the process, that can help you understand what is going on and ensure the complaint is handled fairly and efficiently.
“People want to be taken seriously and have an opportunity to be heard, and that goes for the person who is being complained about as much as it is for the person making the complaint.”
Gabrielle encourages all HR managers to stop and think about what they are trying to achieve before they embark upon some sort of formal complaint process.
“They are really trying to achieve a workplace that’s harmonious and productive,” she says. “They are not trying to punish anybody and they are not making moral judgements about their staff.
“The point of responding to complaints, particularly in HR, is working out what is required to sensibly address the complaint and what do you need to do to protect your workplace. If you really think about that question, it should avoid your organisation becoming embroiled in all sorts of pieces of litigation.
“Be clear on what you’re trying to do. That can be very difficult because the person complaining or the complainant may be inherently complex. But if you are very clear about what your role is, that would be my best tip to make the sailing as smooth as possible.”
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