Tips about How HR Can Best Handle Employee Complaints

A. Chederros/ONOKY/Getty Images

Reader’s Question:

I work in a growing casino in the south west and lately I've been getting complaints from employees that make me feel like a high school guidance counselor more than anything.

"My supervisor is mean to me. She yells at me in front of other coworkers and tells me to do my job."

"My supervisor is always watching me. I don't like it. She watches how long I take my breaks and stands behind me watching what I do?"

"At our last department meeting, they told us that HR doesn't want us going to complain anymore.”  (This was a misunderstanding on the employee's part due to our chain of command policy that states employees need to go up the chain of command for minor issues.)

How should I handle these types of complaints? I seem to get one or two every day either in person or written on an employee complaint form left in the overnight HR box. When they are in person, I let them talk about the problem, takes notes and then notify the immediate supervisor about the issue.

Do you think I'm doing the right thing? I don't want to stop them in their tracks and turn them away. Sometimes they feel these minor issues are HUGE in their eyes.

Our Response:

The problem with employee complaints like this is that they are all subjective. For instance, the first example: “My supervisor is mean to me. She yells at me in front of other coworkers and tells me to do my job.” Let's parse that out.

  • Is the supervisor actually mean? Some supervisors are, of course. Others are not mean, they are just dealing with bad employees.
  • Is the supervisor yelling or just speaking? People have very different perceptions of yelling. Some people take any form of criticism as yelling. But, sometimes supervisors do yell and it's not appropriate behavior.
  • What about telling the employee to do her job? Is the employee slacking off? Or is the manager nitpicking and giving unclear instructions? Is the command, “do your job,” about the employee playing on her phone or is it a response to the employee's complaint about a safety violation?

It's critical that you don't become too hardened to complaints. Why? Because your most important job is to help the business. If you ignore a complaint that a supervisor is yelling and it turns out that a supervisor truly is yelling, turnover will increase and customers might overhear and that's damaging to the business.

If you tell people that they always have to go up the chain of command before complaining, a sexually harassed female may not feel comfortable going to her male supervisor's boss to complain about the harassment. The policy of always going up the chain may result in continued harassment and legal liability for the company.

How to Handle Employee Complaints

So, how to handle complaints like these? Here are some ideas:

Get to know your management/supervisory team. You need to know that Jane is prone to yelling, Steve is the nicest guy ever but he allows his staff to walk all over him, and that Karen doesn't have a clue what goes on with her staff.

You can't get this information just by talking one on one with the management staff. You need to pop in and out. This isn't because you're managing these people — you're not. It's because you need to know what is really going on.

Find out what is really going on. When someone says, “my supervisor is always watching me,” figure out what that means. Ask, “what do you mean by that?” and “why is that a problem?” You may find out that the employee is just whining.

You may find out that the supervisor is hovering inappropriately over a particular employee. You may find out that the employee has never been properly trained. You won't know until you ask.

Ask, “What do you want me to do about that?” Sometimes people just want to vent. They just want to say, “I'm frustrated! I'm in a dead-end job, my supervisor is annoying, and I am tired of working 10 hour days for low pay!” Sometimes they really want help with a problem.

It's important to differentiate between the two.

Keep an open door. It's a great policy to have employees solve most problems themselves. An HR manager is not a therapist or a parent. But, if you turn people away, you'll miss valuable information. Some of that information is critical.

Be careful about notifying the supervisor or manager. Sometimes this is a fine thing to do. But, always let the person know that you will inform the supervisor. If you don't, the employee will feel betrayed. Just because HR managers are not therapists, doesn't mean that employees don't expect total confidentiality.

Many do and are shocked when they find out otherwise. Don't let that happen. Sometimes the employee may say, “No! Don't tell my supervisor!” In this case, you'll have to decide if it's necessary. For instance, with, “My supervisor always tells me how to do my job!” you can ask, “Are you always doing what you're supposed to?” and if the answer is, “No, but neither is Eric.” you can simply advise them to try doing their job all of the time and ignoring their coworkers.

No discussion with management is needed. But, if the complaint is about racial discrimination, you have to clearly communicate that you have to investigate and that certain people will have to know. If you've handled everything by talking to the person, there's not always a reason to tell the supervisor and damage the employee/supervisor relationship.

Remember, minor incidents are often huge for them. When you're dealing with a lot of entry level employees (which, I suspect you are), you have to understand that things you take for granted, they can't. For example, an exempt, professional level employee, taking an extra 15 minutes at lunch is probably not a big deal.

A brand new waitress in her three-month probationary period could find herself unemployed for doing the same thing. You know your boss is unlikely to fire you for a minor mistake. Someone new to the workforce can't make the judgment about just how serious things are.

Human resources is more of an art than a science. You can't always do the perfect thing every time - because you are dealing with imperfect employees. Listening and taking the time to learn about your employees are the keys to your success.