If you manage anybody, the chances are that you will receive employee complaints from your team at some point

The employee complaints will range from something very minor in nature to something very serious. It’s up to you to figure out if the complaint is legitimate and how to respond to it.

If you don’t have a HR department, then you’ll have to handle the situation very carefully. It’s not that easy though. Mishandling a complaint can have future and dire consequences. There are steps you must take to protect yourself, the employee making the complaint, and those affected by the complaint if it’s about another person.

How do you treat each employee’s complaint fairly?

Whether they think that they’re being treated unfairly or don’t agree with their bosses’ decisions, you need to be able to deal with them head-on. Whatever you do, don’t sweep them under the carpet! If you’re not careful, they can snowball into major problems that affect the entire company, even to the point of landing you in a tribunal, losing staff, or being liable for a hefty claim.

The starting point is to understand whether the complaint is just someone’s dissatisfaction with something or someone – or an actual grievance – because the implications and how you deal with them are very different. A grievance is a complaint that is brought to you in a formal written manner, whilst a complaint is an issue that has yet to reach that stage.


An employee complaint could slow down your business. Make sure your complaint procedure is solid.
An employee complaint could slow down your business. Make sure your complaint procedure is solid.

How do you deal with employee grievances?

Dealing with a grievance will cost you time and money and be extremely stressful for both the employee and you as the employer, so best to avoid it. It will consist of a formal hearing, the involvement of others, including HR, and a formal investigation.


So, you should always try to resolve complaints informally before they escalate. A top tip here is to make sure that your grievance procedure allows for an informal resolution as the first stage of your grievance process.

Dealing with complaints in an informal, quick, and amicable way is always the best solution – and the majority of complaints that eventually escalate into grievances and even tribunals could actually have been dealt with in that way, in the first place.

So, here’s our guide on how to nip complaints in the bud and avoid them escalating – and what to do in case it escalates to become a grievance.

4 tips for managing an employee complaint

1) Respond Quickly

If an employee complains or has a concern about their employment it’s important to acknowledge it quickly to get back to them as soon as possible. Even if it seems like they’re blowing something out of proportion, sometimes seemingly minor complaints can be causing a lot of stress to an employee and if not dealt with could lead to sickness absence or even a good employee leaving the business.

Responding in a timely manner can show your employees that you respect their input and are willing to listen. It also prevents employees from forming negative perceptions about you as an employer, which could lead to apathy and people leaving. On the contrary, it shows that you care.

As someone’s boss, there are many different ways to resolve employee issues—you just have to figure out what works best for each individual situation. But ignoring an employee’s complaint or delaying things might means that they could escalate into a formal grievance, which will cost you more time, money, and energy in the long run.

It’s all about the timing

When it comes to a grievance, time continues to be an important factor. If the complaint is informal (not in writing) meet as quickly as you can, to understand what is the nature of the complaint, ask as many questions as possible to get all the information you need.

If the employee wants to raise a formal grievance, time continues to be an important factor. You, the employer, should arrange to hold a meeting within 5 working days ideally. This will depend on your grievance policy.

But it means that the employer and employee have enough time to prepare for the meeting. The employee also has time to bring along a work colleague or trade union representative if they wish to, and the employer can consider who is best to hear the grievance who is impartial and arrange for a witness, note-taker, or HR advisor to attend.

2) Listen

If one of your employees comes to you with a complaint, first and foremost, listen carefully and understand why they are complaining. Remember, complaints can cover anything from discrimination to unprofessional behaviour by another employee or manager.

Ask open questions

You want to get the full picture of the complaint, so make sure you ask lots of questions:

  • What happened
  • How did it happen
  • When did it happen
  • Who did it happen with
  • Why do they believe it justifies being raised as a complaint.

Ask them for facts and evidence, not opinion. Then listen.

Take notes

Not only will it help you remember what was said and keep track of details, essential to refer back to if things do escalate, but note-taking also sets an example for employees that you take their complaints seriously

When you’re done listening, ask the employee how they would like the issue resolved or what would be their ideal outcome? Sometimes it can be a simple as they want an apology, so understanding what their expectation is for the outcome is important. Consider how serious the issue is, and if it’s appropriate to deal with it informally.  Thank them for taking time out of their day to come to talk with you about their issue(s) and bringing it to your attention. This shows that you value their input, even if it isn’t something on which you see eye-to-eye.

Next, put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Let’s say someone who works for you complained about your personality, how would you respond? The key here is empathy – by putting yourself in your employee’s shoes, whether you instinctively agree or disagree, you’re able to understand how they feel.

3) Investigate

When an employee comes to you with a complaint, it’s best not to dismiss it outright, no matter how small the matter may be. At times, employees can be quite upset about something that you may perceive isn’t all that serious. That can be hard when you are a business owner – and you have so many other things on your plate.

It’s your job – as their supervisor or manager – to assess what exactly is wrong and how seriously you should take it. Making sure you have a comprehensive complaint or grievance policy in place is key to guide your actions – so if you don’t have one, now might be the time to get a HR consultant in to help you.

Where to start investigating an employee complaint

A good starting point is to get both sides of the story. If they came directly to you, then ask them what they believe happened, but also ask them who else was involved, who else witnessed it or if they had told anyone else about their concerns prior to coming to you with them.

Perhaps there was a misunderstanding somewhere along the line or perhaps there is some truth behind what was said? Before making any decisions based on information found during your investigation, always gather the facts from all parties.

It’s important to not let your own opinions about an employee, or their performance, get in the way of this investigation. You need to act only on facts in relation to the incident itself.

Employees are often afraid of speaking out against others in fear that retaliation will occur if they do so. At the start of each conversation make sure you advise that the conversation is confidential and that what is being discussed should not be discussed outside of this room. This protects the employee but also prevents gossip spreading or employees colluding on what they may say. Make sure everyone who has knowledge surrounding the situation speaks freely without fear of retribution from co-workers or superiors. As before, ask questions and make notes. Sit down individually with each person involved in order to hear each person’s side separately before proceeding to make any judgments on who may have been at fault.

If their complaint is a serious one – and is presented as a formal written grievance – then part of the investigation process will be to hold a formal outcome meeting, following your discussions with all those involved. At that meeting, you will be able to present your investigation’s findings. You may choose to present the findings to the employee anonymously to protect all the parties involved.

4) Decide

First, you should decide on the severity of the complaint. If it is brought forward as a written grievance then this requires a detailed and thorough investigation with all the relevant parties. While, what may be deemed to be a small niggle might involve working with the person to identify a simple and quick solution. The point is to figure out where to draw your line before you even get started.

Be careful. You may also want to consider the employee’s circumstances, age, and background – what may seem trivial to you might be seen as far more serious to someone else. That’s where empathy kicks in and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. It’s also why every complaint in the workplace should be taken seriously.

What happens when you’ve made your decision?

When it comes to your decision, it’s important that you demonstrate that you are dealing with your employee’s complaint fairly and consistently. You should be clear on why you have come to your decision and what the next steps are.

Hopefully, a positive resolution can be found, and this is more often the case, if things are done properly. However, the person may wish to escalate it if they are not satisfied with the outcome. They may wish to escalate it, for example, to a written grievance. if it was being dealt with informally, or may wish to appeal the grievance outcome, if it was being dealt with as a formal grievance.

This is why it it’s so important to have robust HR policies in place, especially a grievance policy. It means that everyone can follow the same process, which ensures that you can deal with complaints in a way that is compliant and protects you and your business. It also provides your employees with the assurance that problems will be dealt with properly.

If the situation does escalate from complaint to a grievance, then the decision is a much more formal way, with a written grievance outcome letter, this should also include the investigation process which was followed.

Usually, as an employer you need to decide whether to uphold the grievance in full, uphold parts of the grievance and reject others, or reject it in full. If you uphold the grievance wholly or in part, you will need to identify the action that it will take to resolve the issue. Irrespective of the outcome, you will need to respond to the employee formally on the outcome with the reasons behind your decision. It is usual that an employee has the right to appeal a decision. Again, your grievance policy is key here to set out the process for this. You will need to ensure that the Manager involved in the appeal is different to the Manager who decided on the initial grievance outcome.

This should be heard by a manager who is more senior than the person who dealt with the grievance, and who has not previously been involved in the proceedings. If there is no more senior manager, as may be the case in small businesses, another manager should hear the appeal, or alternatively you could chose for an external independent HR Consultant to hear it for you.

If you don’t deal with complaints – what effect can it have on your business?

Employees who feel they have no way to communicate their concerns will feel that their employer doesn’t care. Problems that aren’t dealt with can escalate into sickness absence, stress or even land you in a tribunal. Either way, the consequences are not good and can be costly.

What’s more, most people don’t file complaints for fun – instead, they do so because they feel something is seriously wrong and want it fixed. Your most important job is to help your people to shine and, if they’re obstacles to that, you need to understand and deal with them.

How to reduce complaints in your business

It begins by having the right people in your business. People with the right attitude will have a glass-half-full rather than glass-half-empty attitude and will look for solutions to situations rather than problems. Even the most positive people, however, will get frustrated at some point. And that’s why it’s about creating a culture that is about taking care of your people who are working hard to make the company succeed.

People need attention

And the single best tool for any leader is the one-to-one, which is a regular conversation where you’re helping team members to succeed, rather than leaving them to sink. It’s a two-way dialogue for them to share problems and concerns as well as you giving them recognition for areas where they have excelled and ideas for how they can continuously improve.

As a business owner, you can’t give your people the attention they need alone. There’s likely to be too many – and not enough time. That why you need to surround yourself with a team of competent managers – and that means giving them the tools and training they need to be able to manage their teams well.

How can a HR consultant help with complaints and grievances?

If you’re not a HR expert (and you probably didn’t start your business to become one) then you’ll probably need help to do things right.

You need a HR strategy to enable a positive, pro-active culture, one that seeks to avoid complaints occurring in the first place. A HR Consultant can help, through that strategy, to ensure that you’re defining and hiring the right people that you need for your business. A HR Consultant can also help ensure that you and your managers have the right training and tools to enable you to have highly effective one-to-one meetings that support your people.

HR Consultants can be helpful in many other ways. They can ensure that you have the correct policies in place for dealing with complaints – or grievances –and effectively protect your business.

Not many people like conflict, so they can train you and your managers to have the confidence to deal with those difficult situations effectively. And, if things get emotional (and they often can do) then they can step in by providing objectivity to resolve complaints or grievances calmly and sensitively.

Finally, if things reach the grievance stage – an expert hand from a HR Consultant is very much advised. Because stakes can be high if this is not done properly.

Need help with your complaints procedure, or looking for Human Resources support?

Employee complaints are frustrating, they can cause significant stress and be very costly.  Not just that, they distract you and prevent your business from growing. However, there are steps you can take to reduce complaints in your workplace and the potential consequence of dealing with them wrongly.

The best solution, for this, if you don’t have HR expertise in-house, is a HR Consultant.

If you are struggling to deal with complaints in your workplace, Wright People HR can help.  We’re a team of HR Consultants who can put together a dedicated complaints procedure, or deal with specific employee issues, no matter how serious or formal.

Better still, we can help you to avoid complaints, by creating the right culture – one of positivity where managers have the right tools and training to help people to shine without the fear of being able to deal with difficult issues effectively, as and when they may arise. Get in touch for a free consultation and let’s scale your business through HR.

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