“Ask Sarah” Column

Dear Sarah,

I have an employee who complains a lot. Sorry, but there isn’t a better way to say it! Some of their complaints are valid and others are not. All are relatively minor, and they’re eating up my time! What can I do?


Dear Tired,

Since I am, first and foremost, a lawyer, I’ll start with the legal answer! Legally, employers are obligated to investigate complaints of illegal behavior, such as harassment, discrimination, or other violations of law. Some laws, such as sexual harassment laws, obligate employers to take prompt or immediate action after receiving the complaint. Failing to address these issues can lead to legal risk and potential liability.

If you receive a complaint from an employee that alleges a violation of law, you should take steps to address the complaint, which usually requires an investigation into the allegations. This is true even if the employee has complained about many other things in the past. When investigating, it is essential to approach it methodically and impartially. Start by determining who will conduct the investigation. Depending on the allegations, you may select legal counsel, human resources, another unbiased representative of the employer, or an outside consultant.

The first step for the investigator is documenting the complaint and gathering all relevant information, including any supporting evidence or witnesses. Then, interview the individuals involved separately to ensure unbiased accounts. If you are a governmental employer and are investigating allegations of criminal behavior, issue a Garrity Warning to any witness who may be asked questions about alleged illegal behavior.

Maintain confidentiality throughout the process to protect the privacy of all parties involved. Analyze the gathered information objectively, considering company policies, legal requirements, and precedents. This step helps determine the appropriate course of action, whether it involves disciplinary measures, mediation, policy changes, or further investigation.

Throughout the investigation, keep detailed records of interviews, evidence, and decisions made. When finished, communicate the outcome to the involved parties, while respecting confidentiality.

By following a structured investigative process, employers demonstrate a commitment to addressing employee concerns and upholding a fair and respectful work environment. This approach also helps protect the organization from potential legal ramifications associated with unresolved complaints.

When dealing with frequent complaints that do not involve illegal behavior, consider implementing strategies to minimize general grievances. Encourage an open-door policy where employees can voice concerns directly to their managers or HR. This allows for early intervention and resolution.

Additionally, providing clear channels for feedback, such as anonymous suggestion boxes or regular surveys, can help address underlying issues before they escalate. Training managers in conflict resolution and communication skills is also valuable in preempting and handling complaints effectively.

A positive work culture can help to reduce complaints. Recognizing and rewarding employee contributions, fostering a supportive environment, and ensuring fair and transparent policies contribute to a healthier workplace dynamic.

Lloyd Gosselink’s Employment Law Practice Group regularly assists employers with workplace investigations. We conduct investigations and help employers assess appropriate employment actions after the investigation is concluded.

“Ask Sarah” is prepared by Sarah Glaser, Chair of the Firm’s Employment Law Practice Group. If you would like additional information or have questions related to this article or other employment matters, please contact Sarah at 512.322.5881 or sglaser@lglawfirm.com.

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