How to Help Your Managers Effectively Handle Employee Complaints

Problems Are Best Solved by Managers - Don't Just Escalate Them to HR

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Every HR manager knows that the Human Resources department is where people go to complain about the other people in the company, the company policies, and the general state of the economy.

While we're generally happy to help, the employee's first stop (for everything but the state of the economy) should be his manager.

But, many managers don't have a lot of experience handling complaints, so they tend to shove everything off onto the HR department.

What you need to do is to train your managers on what they can and cannot handle — when they can ignore the complaints, when they need to act, and when they need to escalate the complaint to HR.

Give them these guidelines and make sure that you (the HR manager) push back when you need to.

When to Escalate Complaints to Human Resources Immediately

Managers are often thrust into management positions without any formal management training. In addition to knowing how to develop and train employees, they need to know the laws regarding management. While you can't expect to train them on everything, start with these things.

  • Sexual harassment: Any complaint, no matter how silly or whiny that complaint is —from, “Jim says my dress looks pretty!” to “Jim said if I don't have sex with him, he'll destroy my career” - must be escalated to the Human Resources department.

    Even though the, “Jim says my dress looks pretty,” complaint is undoubtedly ridiculous, you need to let HR investigate.

    Maybe Jim says it in a creepy voice, daily, after the complainer asked him to stop, while fingering the material on the dress. Maybe this is the tip of the iceberg. Regardless, managers should focus on helping the company succeed and a lawsuit, even if unsuccessful is damaging to a company.
  • Any other law violation. If the complaint is that another employee is stealing, violating safety protocols, violating securities regulations, or any other law that your company is subject to, you have to escalate and investigate. Far better to investigate something that turns out to be nothing, than assume something is nothing right up until the SEC comes knocking at your door.

Teach Managers the LACE Approach to Dealing with Employee Complaints

For other complaints, you can use the following mnemonic device to help managers remember what to do: LACE.

  • Listen
  • Acknowledge
  • Consider
  • Execute

Teach your managers this technique to help them handle their own complaints and problems.

  • Listen. Whining is annoying. We often want to just to shut it up. Employee whining is extra annoying because you really wish the employee would get back to work. But, it's important to listen — at least the first time. If you've already resolved an issue with the employee, you can cut the topic off when it comes up again, but for almost everything, you should listen.

    Listening is not just hearing, but actively paying attention. You may have to ask questions to find out what is really going on. For instance, if an employee says, “The schedule is unfair.” a good listener will respond, “In what way is it unfair?” If you just say, “No it's not,” you will resolve nothing with the employee - ever.
  • Acknowledge. When you're dealing with a whiner, this is the most difficult step. Even if you think that the employee's complaint is ridiculous, acknowledging what they're feeling can go a long way towards ending the whining. People keep going on and on because they feel as if no one is hearing them.

    So, try some things like this: “So, what you're saying is...” or, “Let me double check: You feel that Jane gets the best shifts?” Keep rephrasing and repeating until the person agrees that you understand their complaint.
  • Consider. This isn't necessarily done in front of the employee, but it's a critical step. You need to seriously think about the complaint. This may seem ridiculous — as many complaints are ridiculous. (“Why do I have to come in every time I'm scheduled?” or “Jane keeps getting mad at me for texting on my phone when I should be working?”)

    Sometimes, you can consider the complaint very quickly — after all you don't have to think for a long time about whether it's fair that an employee has to show up for work every day. But sometimes considering the complaint can take a long time.

    For instance, if an employee is complaining that the schedule is unfair, you should actually go and look at the schedule. You may find out that you really are giving one person the best shifts.

    Now, you may give the shift preference because she's the hardest worker, in which case the schedule isn't unfair — it's just using a different standard of fairness. You're giving the best shifts to the person who has earned them. If the complaint is that Jane is being rude to customers, you actually need to look and see if that has happened.

    A quick way to handle the consider phase is to ask the following question, “What would you like me to do about this?” Often the employee has no idea, but sometimes the employee has an idea about what they'd like you to do. Then you can consider whether their solution is practical.

    The solutions that employees come up with are often surprising and effective. If the employee has no solution, you can ask the employee to come up with one and come back to you.
  • Execute. Once you've heard the complaint, confirmed that you understand what is going on, considered all of the options, it's time to execute. This can fall into a wide number of possibilities. If you have considered the complaint and decided it's not valid, you don't have to make any changes. You can tell the employee that things will remain as is.

    But, if you decide that changes are necessary, you need to make the changes. Then, you need to reinforce with the employee that you made the changes – the employee may not notice.

    You lose credibility if you hear about a problem - that really is a problem - and you don't do anything about it.

You can advise managers that they can come to you with any problems, but they should try this method first and help their employees feel heard and valued. Employees who feel valued are less likely to complain about silly things, and the important things will be resolved because the managers have taken care of the real complaints.