What do you do when a complainant doesn’t want to make a complaint?


As someone who has worked as an HR professional for some years, I can say that it’s not unusual for an employee to approach me wanting to talk about being bullied, harassed or discriminated against in some way.

Sometimes the employee wants to lodge an official complaint. That outcome involves a considerable amount of work and requires a strict application of professional process and the exercise of good sense, but at least there is a process to follow and it’s “straightforward”.

I say that because there are other occasions on which the person just wants to let someone know or have an opportunity to vent, but doesn’t want to go as far as lodging a formal complaint.

Those occasions place an HR practitioner in a difficult position, especially if the employee appears distressed or otherwise “not themselves”.  From the individual’s perspective, the opportunity to unburden may be a great relief but from where the HR manager sits, the information that has been communicated is in a zone that’s akin to a no-man’s land. A complaint has been received but the complainant does not want to call it a complaint.

So what do you do as an HR professional if you can’t convince the person to formalise the complaint?  How do you sleep at night when you are concerned not only about the welfare of the individual but the detrimental effect the behaviours reported might be having at the team level?  Do these reported behaviours reflect the wider culture of the organisation?

These considerations prompt the question as to whether the duty of care overrides the duty of confidentiality.  How do you deal with the issue of employee trust if you decide to take the issue further without the consent of the complainant?  Do you write a file note but keep it to yourself?

There are no simple answers to these questions and they probably can’t readily become the subject of legislation.  The need for exercising discretion and judgement by the HR professional is paramount, as is the imperative to keep in touch with the complainant and monitor any movements on the issue so it doesn’t take on a new life that runs out of control.

One thing that might help is to ensure the organisation effectively communicates and provides ongoing training on issues related to inclusion that touch on the organisation’s policies and procedures about bullying, harassment and discrimination.

If that happens everyone at least starts on the same page.

Just how prevalent these issues are no doubt varies from workplace to workplace, and those with a strong inclusive culture may report fewer cases. However, human nature is human nature and it’s our role as HR practitioners to know how to handle people so that we are supporting the employees as well as the organisation.

But we are now in an era where human behaviour and the law are combining to produce circumstances that result in HR managers being exposed to legal action being taken against them as individuals in the performance of their duties.  Mindful of that, I’m sure grey areas such as the one I’ve described contribute to plenty of sleepless nights.

I would be interested in hearing about the experiences of others on this delicate question.

Hayley Breen is a senior development and research consultant at the Australian Human Resources Institute.

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Guy
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Guy

Good article Hayley and yes this happens all the time. My approach now is to push back a little on the complainant. Encourage them to manage the situation themselves and provide advice, guidance and support to them along the way. I coach them on their next discussion with the person, outline some key objectives and even role play the discussion. Then I send them off with a level of confidence in tackling the situation themselves. I encourage them to come back and debrief afterwards. This has been working pretty well lately and it seems to resolve most issues before they… Read more »

Angela
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Angela

You point the employee towards the Grievance Handling Procedure and Bullying Policy and advise the Employee that in accordance with company policy they are required to lodge a formal complaint. You also advise the employee that even a verbal complaint puts the onus of responsibility squarely on the Employer/Manager. Even a “whisper in your ear” is a complaint. As the HR Manager you have just been notified and you are required to make a written file note even if the Employee refuses to put the complaint in writing. Under WHS laws you are an “Officer” of the company and as… Read more »

Clare Neeson
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Clare Neeson

Human resources professionals are tasked with ensuring that there is a balanced approach taken when dealing with potential issues of grievance, whatever form these may take. Of course, there are the relevant compliance considerations but if human resources is charged with supporting the business to do the right thing then there is the need to ensure “management” are accountable for the impending actions which may be taken. Too many times, it is so easy for managers to fallback on the human resources function and not take accountability for these organizational challenges. What does this suggest about the culture and importantly… Read more »

Joseph Sanders
Guest
Joseph Sanders

Firstly it is essential to have in place robust policies and processes,which when followed,provide assurance that all parties are afforded their respective legal rights.

Secondly,the HR Manager should not be put in a position whereby he/she is put at risk by trying to make discretional judgements.

The “soft” skills,eg empathy,sympathy,are well placed,however in my experience,they do not obviate the obligation to implement company policy to the letter.To do otherwise is to risk charges of bias/partiality.

Finally,I recognise that this aspect of HR is potentially very stressful,I can say sticking close to existing protocols is the least stressful approach.

Zoe
Guest
Zoe

I find the best approach to use is this: when the potential complainant comes to me to tell me they have an issue they would like to discuss confidentially, I stop them and tell them that I can guarantee sensitivity but not confidentiality. I let them know that, if what they are about to tell me, raises issues of potential bullying, harassment, discrimination, inappropriate behaviour or WHS concerns, then I must take action. I explain that if I do nothing, I am in breach of my obligations.

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What do you do when a complainant doesn’t want to make a complaint?


As someone who has worked as an HR professional for some years, I can say that it’s not unusual for an employee to approach me wanting to talk about being bullied, harassed or discriminated against in some way.

Sometimes the employee wants to lodge an official complaint. That outcome involves a considerable amount of work and requires a strict application of professional process and the exercise of good sense, but at least there is a process to follow and it’s “straightforward”.

I say that because there are other occasions on which the person just wants to let someone know or have an opportunity to vent, but doesn’t want to go as far as lodging a formal complaint.

Those occasions place an HR practitioner in a difficult position, especially if the employee appears distressed or otherwise “not themselves”.  From the individual’s perspective, the opportunity to unburden may be a great relief but from where the HR manager sits, the information that has been communicated is in a zone that’s akin to a no-man’s land. A complaint has been received but the complainant does not want to call it a complaint.

So what do you do as an HR professional if you can’t convince the person to formalise the complaint?  How do you sleep at night when you are concerned not only about the welfare of the individual but the detrimental effect the behaviours reported might be having at the team level?  Do these reported behaviours reflect the wider culture of the organisation?

These considerations prompt the question as to whether the duty of care overrides the duty of confidentiality.  How do you deal with the issue of employee trust if you decide to take the issue further without the consent of the complainant?  Do you write a file note but keep it to yourself?

There are no simple answers to these questions and they probably can’t readily become the subject of legislation.  The need for exercising discretion and judgement by the HR professional is paramount, as is the imperative to keep in touch with the complainant and monitor any movements on the issue so it doesn’t take on a new life that runs out of control.

One thing that might help is to ensure the organisation effectively communicates and provides ongoing training on issues related to inclusion that touch on the organisation’s policies and procedures about bullying, harassment and discrimination.

If that happens everyone at least starts on the same page.

Just how prevalent these issues are no doubt varies from workplace to workplace, and those with a strong inclusive culture may report fewer cases. However, human nature is human nature and it’s our role as HR practitioners to know how to handle people so that we are supporting the employees as well as the organisation.

But we are now in an era where human behaviour and the law are combining to produce circumstances that result in HR managers being exposed to legal action being taken against them as individuals in the performance of their duties.  Mindful of that, I’m sure grey areas such as the one I’ve described contribute to plenty of sleepless nights.

I would be interested in hearing about the experiences of others on this delicate question.

Hayley Breen is a senior development and research consultant at the Australian Human Resources Institute.

13
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Guy
Guest
Guy

Good article Hayley and yes this happens all the time. My approach now is to push back a little on the complainant. Encourage them to manage the situation themselves and provide advice, guidance and support to them along the way. I coach them on their next discussion with the person, outline some key objectives and even role play the discussion. Then I send them off with a level of confidence in tackling the situation themselves. I encourage them to come back and debrief afterwards. This has been working pretty well lately and it seems to resolve most issues before they… Read more »

Angela
Guest
Angela

You point the employee towards the Grievance Handling Procedure and Bullying Policy and advise the Employee that in accordance with company policy they are required to lodge a formal complaint. You also advise the employee that even a verbal complaint puts the onus of responsibility squarely on the Employer/Manager. Even a “whisper in your ear” is a complaint. As the HR Manager you have just been notified and you are required to make a written file note even if the Employee refuses to put the complaint in writing. Under WHS laws you are an “Officer” of the company and as… Read more »

Clare Neeson
Guest
Clare Neeson

Human resources professionals are tasked with ensuring that there is a balanced approach taken when dealing with potential issues of grievance, whatever form these may take. Of course, there are the relevant compliance considerations but if human resources is charged with supporting the business to do the right thing then there is the need to ensure “management” are accountable for the impending actions which may be taken. Too many times, it is so easy for managers to fallback on the human resources function and not take accountability for these organizational challenges. What does this suggest about the culture and importantly… Read more »

Joseph Sanders
Guest
Joseph Sanders

Firstly it is essential to have in place robust policies and processes,which when followed,provide assurance that all parties are afforded their respective legal rights.

Secondly,the HR Manager should not be put in a position whereby he/she is put at risk by trying to make discretional judgements.

The “soft” skills,eg empathy,sympathy,are well placed,however in my experience,they do not obviate the obligation to implement company policy to the letter.To do otherwise is to risk charges of bias/partiality.

Finally,I recognise that this aspect of HR is potentially very stressful,I can say sticking close to existing protocols is the least stressful approach.

Zoe
Guest
Zoe

I find the best approach to use is this: when the potential complainant comes to me to tell me they have an issue they would like to discuss confidentially, I stop them and tell them that I can guarantee sensitivity but not confidentiality. I let them know that, if what they are about to tell me, raises issues of potential bullying, harassment, discrimination, inappropriate behaviour or WHS concerns, then I must take action. I explain that if I do nothing, I am in breach of my obligations.

1 2 3
More on HRM