Staff complaints are unavoidable, so take measures to stop them spiralling out of control
There are myriad ways in which employee complaints can arise and, although an employer might take steps to reduce the likelihood of employees feeling aggrieved, it is almost impossible to avoid such situations altogether.
It is important, therefore, that managers are equipped to handle complaints in a timely and appropriate manner as and when they arise. Failure to do so may result in the matter escalating and have an adverse impact on employee morale.
Hong Kong law does not prescribe particular processes or steps that employers must adopt in handling complaints. It is therefore open to employers to consider best-practice approaches from other jurisdictions and adopt a process which is appropriately tailored to the needs and resources of their particular business.
Based on international best practice, there are a number of tips that can be given for handling employee complaints. We set out below, general guidance based on international best practice, to assist employers in handling employee grievances in a professional, appropriate and timely manner.
Managers should be encouraged to adopt an “open door” policy and should be ready to advise employees on the options available – including internal grievance procedures – to encourage early communication between managers and employees on workplace issues.
A complaint policy that is readily accessible to employees will provide transparency on the company’s procedures for raising workplace issues and how management will deal with them (including expectations around confidentiality and non-retaliation). Meanwhile, a complaint handling procedure or checklist can also provide useful guidance to HR and business managers when handling grievances and conducting investigations, to ensure that a consistent and fair process is adopted and the investigation is independent and thorough. Appropriate training should also be provided.
Once a complaint is raised, it is important to assess the scope of the investigation required, who should conduct the investigation and what steps should be taken to ensure that relevant evidence is preserved. The individual(s) investigating the complaint should be impartial (and seen as impartial).
Investigations should be conducted promptly and the complainant should be kept updated (in general terms) on the steps and estimated times involved in the investigation.
nvestigators should obtain a clear understanding of the issues, who should be interviewed – and in what order – and what evidence might be available to independently corroborate any claims made. It may be necessary to interview some witnesses more than once.
If the complaint relates to inappropriate workplace behaviour, interim measures such as temporarily reassigning tasks, separating the parties involved, granting leave or even suspending employees in appropriate cases may be needed to reduce the risk of aggravating relations between employees involved while the investigation is ongoing.
Complaints should always be handled confidentially, to the extent practicable, and information about the complaint and the investigation generally should be disclosed only on a “need to know” basis. Those involved should be reminded that they should not discuss the subject matter of the investigation with others and that retaliation against anyone involved in the investigation – as complainant, witness or otherwise – shall not be tolerated in any circumstances.
Where applicable, employees should be reminded of any support available to them, such as employee assistance programmes.
Each step of the investigation and the evidence obtained should be recorded. An objective report of relevant findings and recommendations should be prepared to inform management when making any decision as to any remedial or other steps that may be required. Where applicable, actions should be taken consistent with relevant policies and procedures.
The complainant should always be informed of the outcome of the investigation, along with a brief explanation of the investigation’s specific findings. Even if the complainant is not satisfied with the decision itself, such open communication is likely to reassure him or her that the complaint has been taken seriously.
After a complaint has been dealt with, it is important to ensure that appropriate follow up is taken to ensure that any systemic issues giving rise to the complaint are properly addressed where appropriate.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Stop staff complaints spiralling out of control.