People Strategy

The Ultimate Guide to Handling HR Complaints

October 9, 2020
November 7, 2023
Deanna deBara
Lattice Team

If there’s an issue or conflict in the workplace, Human Resources needs to know about it. But many employees are hesitant to file a complaint with HR — and many HR professionals don’t know how they should handle those complaints when they come in.

It’s a daunting process, no doubt. As an employee, what steps do you need to take to file a complaint with HR? And as an HR professional, what steps do you need to take to ensure your employees’ complaints are being dealt with quickly and effectively?

Read on for how both employees and HR can handle these inevitable complaints that arise as smoothly and successfully as possible.

How to Handle HR Complaints As an Employee

If you’re on the employee side of filing an HR complaint, here’s what you need to keep in mind throughout the process.

1. Consider whether the issue warrants an official complaint.

There are plenty of things that you might find irritating or even downright upsetting at work, like a coworker who has loud phone conversations at their desk, or someone who sends you what feels like 100 Slack messages a day that have nothing to do with work and that are incredibly distracting.

But before you go the official route and file a complaint with Human Resources, you should consider whether the situation warrants it, or if it’s something you’re equipped to handle on your own.

“Employees should thoughtfully consider if they want to make an HR complaint about something that really involves common office politics,” said Kia Roberts, JD, founder of Triangle Investigations, a firm of lawyers, investigators, and workplace policy advisors that specializes in workplace misconduct investigations.

Sometimes, all it takes is a simple conversation to clear up an issue at work. For example, your coworker might have no idea that they’re speaking loudly or sending you too many personal messages throughout the day, and talking to them might be all it takes to solve the problem.

2. But if it does, don’t be afraid to speak up.

That being said, if you find yourself in a more serious situation that does require a more formal complaint, you shouldn’t hesitate to bring the issue to the appropriate Human Resources contact.

For many employees, the thought of filing a complaint with HR can feel scary — and that’s natural. Many employees want to avoid making the situation any more uncomfortable than it already is, and worry that escalating the issue to HR will either make things worse or cause the subject of the complaint to take some sort of retributive action against them, like, for example, blocking a future promotion.

But while it’s totally normal to feel that sense of apprehension, it’s also important to move past it, because most of the time, filing a complaint is the only way to resolve the situation.

“Fear of retaliation or stalled advancement prospects understandably makes many employees fearful about making an HR complaint,” said Roberts. “However, employees should reflect upon the idea that if they choose not to make a complaint, the chances of the offensive behavior [or] misconduct stopping are slim to none.”

3. Follow procedures.

Once you decide to file a complaint with HR, it’s important to follow any policies or procedures outlined by your company, which will ensure that your complaint gets in front of the right people and is dealt with in a timely manner.

“Employees should check their company’s policy, as complaint processes vary by company,” advised Rory Gerberg, MPP, a workplace consultant and trainer on sexual harassment prevention and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

For instance, one company might require you to fill out an online request form before meeting with the HR department and formally filing your complaint, while another might ask that you go directly to the HR Director immediately with any complaints.

Whatever your company’s procedures are around HR complaints, following them will help you get the ball rolling on your complaint and help ensure it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

4. Be as specific and factual as possible.

When you’re filing your complaint, the more detailed, specific, and factual you can be about the issue, the better.

“Employees should be careful about making HR complaints that are vague and difficult for HR representatives to properly address,” noted Roberts. “Employees should also try their best to have detailed documentation to support the complaint: When did the misconduct that led to the complaint occur? Where? Was anyone else present?”

So, for example, instead of filing a complaint that says, “Manager A made me uncomfortable,” include as much detail and supporting evidence as possible, like, “Manager A made me uncomfortable when they said [XYZ] on September 22 in a Zoom meeting with the rest of the marketing team. Colleagues A, B, and C were in attendance at the meeting, and each followed up with me after the meeting and confirmed how inappropriate the comment made by Manager A was.”

The more detailed, specific, and factual you are in your complaint, the easier it will be for HR to deliver a resolution, and the faster they’ll be able to do it.

5. Escalate as necessary.

If you feel like your contact in Human Resources isn’t taking your complaint seriously or working to find a resolution, you may need to go above their head.

“Employees with legitimate concerns should not hesitate to escalate [the issue],” said Robert Bird, JD, MBA, a business law professor at the University of Connecticut with more than 20 years of experience teaching employment law.

For instance, if you file a complaint with an HR manager and aren’t satisfied with how they’re handling it, you may need to speak to your company’s HR Director or VP of Human Resources. And if you feel like no one at your company is working to resolve your complaint, you may need to escalate things even further.

“Employees have numerous options for how to proceed when they feel like their HR complaint has not been taken seriously,” Roberts said. “One...choice is for employees to consult with an employment lawyer to discuss what their options are. Also, in several cities and states — [like] New York City and the State of Connecticut — an employee has the option of making a complaint to a Human Rights Commission, which can perform their own independent investigation into the complaint.”

How to Handle HR Complaints If You’re an HR Professional

If you work in Human Resources, and are on the receiving end of an HR complaint from an employee, here are some key things to know that will help you navigate this process on your end.

1. Develop clear complaint policies and procedures — and make sure your team is familiar with them.

The process of effectively dealing with HR complaints starts before an employee files the complaint.

“Employers must have an immediate point of contact for complaints, and an objective and transparent process for handling complaints developed in advance,” said Bird. “Employers who have a well-developed prevention and management process of handling complaints could reduce their exposure to legal liability.”

Not only does having a clear HR complaint procedure protect your business, but it also empowers your employees; without a clear procedure in place, many employees will be unsure about how and if they should file an HR complaint, and serious issues could fall through the cracks as a result.

“If there isn’t a procedure for dealing with HR complaints which is clear and communicated to employees, employees have little reason to trust that bringing an incident to HR is worth the risk,” Gerberg said.

2. Create an environment where your employees feel safe to file a complaint.

Having clear procedures around how employees should file an HR complaint is important, but creating an environment where they feel safe to file those complaints is just as crucial.

“Unfortunately, employee fear is well grounded in the data: Retaliation does often happen,” Gerberg said. “The burden is not on the employees, but on HR and company leadership to create an environment in which employees can trust their concerns will be handled appropriately.”

Make sure your employees understand that they won’t face any repercussions for filing an HR complaint — no matter who the complaint involves. Have an open-door policy where they can ask questions and you can address any concerns. If and when an employee does lodge a complaint, make sure that they’re treated with respect and compassion, both by HR and leadership.

When you create a safe environment at work, your employees will feel safe bringing you their feedback, concerns, issues, and complaints — and your workplace will be better because of it.

3. Deal with complaints in a way that reflects their severity.

HR complaints should always be taken seriously. But exactly how seriously depends on the severity of the complaint.

“Companies should avoid zero-tolerance policies. Zero tolerance pushes low-level problematic behavior underground, because employees believe either it will be blown out of proportion or nothing will be done,” cautioned Gerberg. “Instead, HR’s response should be situationally context-specific, adjusted to the nature of each incident.”

For example, an employee filing a complaint that their colleague is making personal calls during work hours is not the same thing as an employee filing a sexual harassment complaint against their direct supervisor, and they shouldn’t be treated the same way, either. If you respond to the personal phone call complaint in the same way you respond to the sexual harassment claim, it will make your employees think twice about reporting any lower-level issues, and can have a negative impact on your company culture and employee morale as a result.

4. But deal with them swiftly, appropriately, and effectively.

It’s important to approach HR complaints in a way that aligns with the seriousness and severity of the issue. However, you still need to treat all HR complaints with respect — regardless of how serious (or not serious) you might consider it. What feels like a minor issue to you could be a big deal to your employee, and if you don’t follow-up on their complaint swiftly and effectively, they could feel like their issue is being ignored or swept under the rug. This could then lead to a whole host of problems, including issues with employee retention and turnover, and/or legal or compliance concerns.

HR complaints can be challenging to navigate, both for employees and HR. But by utilizing these tips, you’ll be better equipped to successfully file or manage an HR complaint, whether you’re on the employee or the Human Resources side. And this can help lead to effective resolutions, and the best outcomes all around.