No one wants to file a complaint with their employer. Ideally, you can go through your entire career without filing a single complaint. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know what to do if the situation arises.
Sadly, sometimes employees are apprehensive about expressing workplace concerns because they don’t know the process. They’re apprehensive their concerns will be misinterpreted, or they’ll be retaliated against for sharing their thoughts.
Holly Haynes, assistant vice president in Unum’s employee relations department, says human resources understands the challenges employees go through.
“Reporting issues is hard and HR understands that,” Haynes says. “The best thing you can do is be honest with HR. Ask HR to outline the process, the protections you have as a reporter, and the company’s stance on retaliation. The best organizations believe transparency is key. They’ll gladly walk you through the process and explain the safeguards they can offer.”
Typically, the first step in any type of complaint or grievance process involves an initial conversation about the issue. Many organizations outline the complaint process in the employee handbook or on an internal intranet. The procedure for filing a complaint also may be covered during new hire orientation. These resources might instruct employees to have an initial conversation with their manager about workplace concerns.
In many cases, employees have good working relationships with their manager. This is a person they see and talk to almost every day. Hopefully, the manager is a person the employee feels comfortable talking to. And the manager can either address the concern or escalate it to the appropriate area.
However, there are times when employees are uncomfortable going directly to their manager with a concern. It could be because the employee has a new relationship with the manager and they haven’t built a rapport yet. Or it’s possible the concern directly involves the manager. Haynes offers two suggestions for appropriately raising a concern without going straight to your supervisor:
1. Go to another trusted member of leadership, who will likely report the matter to HR, as they should. Be open about your concerns around retaliation.
2. Report the issue directly to HR. They will coach you through the best way to resolve it. Depending on the complexity of the issue, it may involve an HR investigation.
In both scenarios, the matter will end up in HR. That isn’t a bad thing. HR has an organizational obligation to investigate employee concerns. In addition, many companies have policies that prohibit retaliation for bringing forward a good faith concern. The conversation will be documented and safeguards against retaliation will be in place as a result.
If you have concerns about going to HR or a member of management, there might be another option. Check to see if the company has a help or ethics hotline where complaints can be made anonymously via an online portal or phone line. Keep in mind if you report issues through a hotline and elect to remain anonymous, it’ll be important to provide specific examples so the issue can be addressed. Being too vague about the situation will mean the issue can’t be investigated.
Unfortunately, some employees find services such as hotlines questionable when it comes anonymity. Third-party vendors are often used, and their reputation and credibility depend on their ability to keep the employee’s identity anonymous. In some situations, the vendor can serve as an intermediary between the employee and the company. If an employee elects to report through a hotline but decides not to be anonymous, it’s likely the concern will be assigned to HR or the company’s ethics officer for handling, depending on the nature of the issue.
Speaking of anonymity, employees will often ask their concerns remain confidential, but Haynes says that might not always be an option. “This is why it is important for employees to understand the company’s position on retaliation and their process for handling issues. Most employers explain they’ll do their best to keep issues confidential, but they can’t always promise that.”
Employees interviewed during an investigation will often put pieces together and draw a conclusion on who the reporter is, Haynes adds.
“Most employers will set clear expectations for those who participate in the investigation process that there is zero tolerance for retaliation and that confidentiality must be maintained to protect the integrity of the investigation. Employers also encourage employees to speak up if they ever believe they’re being retaliated against or their confidentiality has been breached.”
Neither employers or employees want to deal with workplace issues and investigations. But sometimes situations need to be investigated and addressed. You should feel comfortable taking concerns to your company, knowing the information you provide will be handled appropriately.