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Voicing a complaint to a co-worker or even a supervisor is an easy way for an employee to express displeasure with certain working conditions, whether it's about performance appraisal questions, benefits or conflict with a supervisor. But when an employee takes the time to write a complaint letter, the expectation is that the company will, at a minimum, carefully read it and invest the time to respond to the complaint.
Human resources leaders realize that many employees don't credit HR with being an advocate for staff. In fact, some employees say that going to the HR department is akin to going to the school principal's office, and they avoid it at all costs, saying HR turns a blind toward employees' concerns. The administrative duties for which the 1980s-era personnel departments were responsible barely extended beyond handing out paychecks and signing up employees for group health benefits. Today, however, HR departments have evolved into strategic business partners, focusing on improving the employer-employee relationship through personal attention to employee concerns.
Improving the employer-employee relationship isn't about awarding bonuses or paying higher wages than your competitor. In his book, "Seven Hidden Reasons Why Employees Leave," Leigh Branham examined nearly 20,000 exit interviews that The Saratoga Institute provided. Branham's research revealed that employees are more likely to leave because they feel devalued. They also leave because of ineffective leadership. With the right approach, these are matters that HR can resolve. One such approach is to take employees' complaints seriously and immediately respond to issues that affect job satisfaction.
Direct employees to voice their concerns in writing to the HR department and assign an HR staffer to acknowledge the complaint. When appropriate and when the complaint is not likely to result in legal action against the company, follow up with a written response to the employee, outlining what the company will do to resolve the issues about which the employee complained. If your written response cannot outline precise steps to resolving the complaint -- such as complaints about workplace harassment -- assure the employee that you will address her concerns confidentially, to the extent possible.
In some cases, a one-on-one meeting is necessary to express the company's sincere interest in resolving workplace issues. Review the employee's complaint letter together with the employee to ensure that you're clear about what underlies the employee's dissatisfaction. A private meeting assures employees that you take their concerns seriously. Be forthcoming when you answer questions about what the company can do to achieve a resolution and note suggestions the employee has for resolving his complaint. But avoid promising solutions to complex issues or complaints that could potentially become legal issues.
Depending on the circumstances, it might be unnecessary or even unwarranted to respond to an employee's complaint in writing. For example, complaints that involve workplace harassment or discriminatory treatment should be investigated and documented. But the employee doesn't get a copy of the investigative notes as a response to her complaint. Only your company's legal counsel should receive investigative notes and internal reports about employee complaints that could raise questions about liability, such as harassment, discrimination, workplace safety issues and the like. On the other hand, if the employee complains about something as benign as cleaner bathrooms or problems accessing the company's Intranet remotely, those are matters that you can quickly resolve. In addition, provide the employee with a written response that documents what you've done to resolve complaints like these.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.