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Employee complaints, gripes, whines and other good business advice

Image: Stuart Miles |

Image: Stuart Miles |

Retired football coach, broadcaster and motivational speaker Lou Holtz said, “Never tell your problems to anyone…20% don’t care and the other 80% are glad you have them.” Although this may have some truth for most of us, employers must be careful not to fall into either category.

Every employer has or has had an employee who appears to be a tiresome complainer and dealing with whom can be exhausting. Employers who ignore employee complaints, however, as time consuming as it may be to deal with them, do so at their own peril, as employees are uniquely positioned to offer advice to employers of problems in the operation of the business.

Just as any business would be foolish to ignore its customers’ complaints, so would it be to ignore the complaints of its employees. By ignoring employee complaints an employer not only risks losing an opportunity to improve its operations, but also risks undermining employee morale when even those employees who do not complain want to see an employer who has a process to address the issues raised by others.

An employee complaints policy should provide a written procedure for accepting and processing employee complaints with investigation levels ranging from informal to formal. It is the job of an Employee Complaints or Dispute Resolution policy to create an atmosphere and procedure which will effectively and quickly deal with the minor or baseless complaints, but can also direct comprehensive, unbiased consideration of employee complaints which deal with important issues.

The types of complaints which may be covered by an Employee Complaints policy include, but are not limited to, workload, health and safety concerns, questionable compliance with provisions of legislation or other employer policies, inter-employee relations or supervisor-employee relations or harassment, scheduling etc. Employers should consider how such a policy will differ or work alongside policies such as Employee Suggestions, Whistleblowers, Bullying and Harassment, Conduct and Behaviour, and Violence in the Workplace.

Obviously, some types of complaints will require a higher level of inquiry than others. For example, a complaint about a ten-minute break may be easily dealt with between employee and supervisor, a complaint about workload may require a greater level of investigation and discussion among numerous personnel, and a complaint about harassment or a health and safety violation may require a fully documented investigation. A complaint policy should include informal procedures, including open door policies and regular employee meetings in which employees are encourage to raise concerns. More formal complaint procedures would include written complaint submissions and a process for investigating and addressing the complaint’s merits.

Complaints should be dealt with in a timely manner. A delay in responding risks a gossip or rumour mill that could undermine employee morale or escalate the issue.

Employers are advised to get legal advice prior to responding if a complaint requires legal interpretation or if an employee brings forward a serious complaint which may have further legal ramifications. Policies should require that careful records are kept of all complaints and their resolutions in case complaint issues arise in claims of wrongful or constructive dismissal, discrimination or harassment.

Complaint procedures should consider the following steps:

  • submission of the complaint (verbally, in writing, anonymously?)
  • understanding the facts (do you have sufficient detail to understand the issue?)
  • establish what resolution the employee is seeking
  • determine if others need to be involved (as witnesses, advisors or decision-makers)
  • determine if further investigation is required
  • completion of further investigation, research and discussion of the issue
  • propose a solution or make a determination as soon as possible
  • explain the decision to the employee
  • revise policy or procedure and communicate decision to other employees where necessary
  • if the complaint had merit, thank the employee
  • where possible maintain the employee’s privacy while dealing with complaint
  • maintain records of the complaint, investigation, research and outcome

As with all policies, if a complaints procedure exists at the workplace, be sure to follow it. Employers who have policies but do not consistently adhere to them risk liabilities.

For further consideration of this issue see Human Resources PolicyPro sample policies regarding Dispute Resolution, Employee Suggestions, Whistleblowers, Bullying and Harassment, Conduct and Behaviour, and Violence in the Workplace.

Michele Glassford

President and Managing Editor at DRH and Lawyer at MacKinnon Law Associates
Michele Glassford, is a lawyer, researcher and policy analyst with a background in employment and labour law.In addition to a part-time law practice in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Michele has worked in the field of labour adjustment for the Health Sector Training and Adjustment Program and has been a Researcher for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Michele also holds the position of President and Managing Editor at D.R. Hancocks & Associates Inc., author of the Human Resources PolicyPros. Read more

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