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Workplace complaints? Really nothing to complain about.

Investigating employee complaints can help to avoid liability and associated expenses

No matter the business, as long as humans are working with each other, there will always be conflict of some type. Certain conflict is “good” – for example, a debate in the workplace these days about which gentleman named “Aaron” is playing better football for a certain local team is good conflict. In the business setting, good conflict can lead to an expansion of ideas, consideration of other possibilities, and alternative decisions that can help employees, customers or your overall business.

Most conflict, however, is viewed as “bad” and leads to employee complaints. How you address and investigate such complaints can separate you from other employers, helping you to attract and retain top talent and customers. In many instances, your investigation also can assist in avoiding subsequent liability and associated expenses or damages. This article discusses various types of employee complaints and suggests strategies on how to investigate same such that you properly address the issue and best position yourself moving forward.

Complaint Level One – Minimal Investigation Needed: Often, management receives employee complaints about issues that, quite frankly, seem inconsequential. For example, how many times have you received a complaint about changes to the selection of candy bars available in the vending machine? Or a complaint that Accounting used up all of the good binders, leaving only the recycled ones for Marketing? Complaints regarding such issues, which have no directly quantifiable impact on your company’s performance, do not require any formal investigatory response.

That said, such seemingly inconsequential issues can have a major impact on your workforce and its morale, with a failure to respond seen as a failure to consider the employees. Particularly in light of the current employment market, you should consider training and instruction for your managers and supervisory employees on how best to respond to such complaints, as you do not want to lose a good employee over a trifle.

Complaint Level Two – You Should Investigate: Certain types of complaints warrant investigation, even if, on their face, the underlying issues seem minor or otherwise inconsequential to business operations. This is because, in addition to the employee relations issues discussed above, such an investigation could reveal facts or circumstances that, if not addressed, could lead to liability. As an example, one of your company’s delivery people reports that, in winter, your customer repeatedly fails to shovel and salt the steps and walkway leading to its receiving dock. If not addressed, such conditions could lead to a fall by your employee, resulting in a worker’s compensation claim to you (and a possible tort claim to your customer). Routing such a complaint to the proper person in your organization, who can then reach out to your customer to discuss it, could result in avoiding such a situation. The same holds true with regard to employee complaints regarding other employees. While, in the majority of instances, an investigation into employee-against-employee complaints will reveal personality differences, misunderstandings, etc., such investigations can uncover circumstances that turn the complaint into the final level discussed next.

Complaint Level Three – You MUST Investigate: Complaints regarding workplace conduct that violates various federal and state employment-related laws must be investigated and resolved immediately. These include complaints of sexual harassment, discriminatory conduct based on a legally protected class (such as age, gender, race, disability, etc.), workplace violence, etc. In addition, allegations of certain conduct that occurs outside of the employment setting, but involves your employees, should be investigated and addressed with equivalent concern and vigor – for example, allegations of stalking or other inappropriate and/or illegal conduct. Failure to investigate and appropriately resolve such complaints could result in direct liability to your business.

Upon determining the level of complaint received from an employee, your next step is to determine the “who” and “how” of the investigation. Regardless of complaint level, there is no single “correct” method of investigating the alleged conduct. Rather, your investigation will be shaped by the type of legal issues involved, the culture of your workplace, and other issues that may impact, directly or indirectly, the investigation and resolution. Make sure that whoever you choose to investigate the complaint understands the nature and severity of the allegations and contemplates how the investigation will impact the entire workforce, not just the individuals or groups involved. In addition, if the complaint involves conduct that could give rise to legal liability, you may want to consider involving counsel, either in-house or external, such that the investigation is entitled to certain privileges and protections.

Lastly – document, document, document. Even if a complaint appears trivial and easily addressed and resolved, be sure to note the circumstances of the complaint, who was all involved, and how the situation was resolved. In the event the complaining employee is dissatisfied with the investigation or response, your documentation will prove invaluable if the employee decides, for whatever reason, to escalate the complaint into a legal claim. You will be glad you did.

Please contact a Davis|Kuelthau attorney, or the author, Anthony J. Steffek at 920.431.2237 / if you have any questions regarding this article.

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Anthony J. Steffek is an attorney with the law firm of Davis|Kuelthau in Green Bay. He proactively and reactively assists employers, both big and small, in wading through the various HR-related issues that arise in today’s employment world.

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