Every small business owner wants to foster a positive work environment. However, even in the most harmonious workplaces, conflicts and misunderstandings can arise.
One of the more challenging situations a small business owner may face is handling employee complaints against a manager. If not addressed properly, such complaints can erode trust, reduce productivity and negatively impact company culture.
In this blog, we'll dive into effective ways to address employee complaints against managers, ensuring a cohesive and healthy work environment.
Here are a few tips to guide you through a complaint:
Without Assuming Guilt, Take the Employee Complaint Seriously
Regardless of whether the complaint stems from a resolvable misunderstanding or a serious act of misconduct, all employee complaints against a manager should be taken seriously. Of course, your organization’s immediate response will depend on the severity of the misconduct alleged in the complaint.
If, for example, a manager was accused of harassment, discrimination, or illegal conduct against a complaining employee, action should be taken as soon as possible to separate the employee from the manager. Handling any employee complaints against a manager requires businesses to balance respect for the accuser with due regard for the accused. Showing respect for the complainant starts with speaking with the employee privately and listening to their concerns with an open mind.
While you should never promise a particular outcome, you should communicate that the complaint has been heard and the company will do everything possible to fully investigate and address the situation appropriately. Respect for the manager accused of misconduct begins with hearing their side of the story with the same professionalism paid to the accuser.
Investigate the Complaint Carefully and Record Everything
Getting to the “bottom” of an employee complaint against a manager is never easy—it can be a game of “he said, she said” that leaves the business wondering what action to take. When the accused and accuser tell completely different stories, it always helps to ask the complaining employee if there is anyone else who can speak to what happened. If there is, be sure to hear those individuals’ recounting of the events as well.
It may also be helpful to interview the manager’s other employees. While other employees may not have familiarity with the specific events at issue, it’s possible that they could be able to speak to similar occurrences or a pattern of conduct they’ve witnessed in the past.
Tangible proof of misconduct seems like an obvious item to bring to a meeting to discuss a complaint, but many employees don’t think to mine their files for evidence. Ask the accuser if they have any physical records they’ve retained themselves that they could provide to you, including emails, voicemails or IMs.
As you’re digging into the details of what happened, make sure to document every bit of information you come across. In the event the complaining employee takes the matter outside of the company, having clear documentation of your investigation will be of utmost importance. Memories fail and circumstances can change. Clear documentation on file substantiates the decisions and actions that were taken as a result of the investigation.
Take Consistent Action
Once you’ve reached a decision regarding fault, it’s important to apply discipline in a consistent manner. Making an example out of a manager by firing them for something others have not received harsh penalties for in the past might anger other employees and management staff, particularly if the misconduct was not illegal or a personal attack on a subordinate.
Similarly, “taking it easy” on a manager because of their performance or good reputation outside of the complaint could send a message to the complaining employee that they aren’t valued or believed. Ensuring you take consistent action in applying discipline will help create a workplace where accountability is high and policies are respected.
Revisit Your Employee Policies and Available Reporting Methods
An employee complaint against a manager may cause a business to re-examine its employee policies and available reporting channels. While it’s always best to be proactive in perfecting these items before a problem occurs, you can use this opportunity to tighten up your employee relations infrastructure for the future.
Many small businesses only have one method for employees to report complaints. If your organization falls into this category, it’s important to add at least one more reporting channel.
If an employee has a complaint against a manager and their only reporting channel is through that very individual, the employee may be too fearful to make the complaint. The result can translate to poor retention and/or misconduct that goes unreported.
Similarly, if you have an employee in charge of HR functions within your firm, don’t assume that an employee could never make a complaint against him or her. Offering multiple methods of reporting ensures that all employees remain accountable for their actions in the workplace.
When an employee complaint arises, take the time to consider how your organization can take action in the future to prevent a similar incident from occurring. Could you implement a no-warning, zero-tolerance policy for harassment?
What about establishing clearer behavioral expectations? Perhaps your management staff could use more comprehensive anti-harassment or leadership training. Using this opportunity to make thoughtful changes to your policies and training requirements can help keep your company’s culture exceptional.
Employee Complaints Against a Manager: The Silver Lining
Employee complaints against a manager can be challenging to navigate, but they also offer an opportunity to strengthen your organization. By approaching these complaints with empathy, objectivity and a commitment to fairness, you can not only resolve the immediate issue but also build a stronger, more cohesive team.
If, like most small businesses, your company is not large enough to support multiple methods of completely unbiased reporting channels, consider outsourcing HR functions to an experienced professional employer organization (PEO). Working with a PEO provides your small business with access to employee relations and HR experts who can help your company thrive.