How to Handle Employee Complaints Against Leadership: 12 Tips from HR

As an HR leader, what is your best practice for handling employee complaints against a manager or leader?

To help you adopt the best approach in handling employee complaints against leadership in your organization, we asked HR professionals and business leaders this question for their best insights. From keeping the employee in the loop to developing clear complaint processes that foster trust, there are several ways HR leaders can tactfully deal with employee complaints against leadership to bring an amicable solution between the two parties.

Here are 12 tips these HR leaders follow when handling employee complaints against leadership:

  • Keep the Employee in the Loop About Their Complaint
  • Create a Committee of HR Executives
  • Bring in Personalized Practices for Conflict Resolution
  • Listen to Both Sides to Observe Fairness
  • Be Transparent and Honest With Any Complaints
  • Hold an Unbiased Meeting and Keep Communication Open
  • Take the Complaint Seriously
  • React Quickly to Any Complaints
  • Be a Listening Ear all the Time
  • Document Everything as You Address the Issue
  • Ask the Employee for a Proposed Solution
  • Develop Clear Complaint Processes that Foster Trust

Keep the Employee in the Loop About Their Complaint

One important step to take in this process is to communicate with the complaining employee. While you may be unable to relay every step and piece of information, many HR leaders make the mistake of hiding their work. Assuring an employee that action has been taken may be insufficient to earn their confidence if there is no visible proof, especially if the consequences are confidential.

Without an understanding of the process, an employee may assume that HR is merely going through the motions and protecting the manager through inaction. While you do not need to breach privacy, you can explain the procedure, check in with the employee with updates and timelines, and have a 1:1 conversation with the reporter about the next steps and their current feelings and needs. Perhaps offer suggestions or accommodations if the result was not what the employee hoped. Also, make it known that while this current case is closed, the employee is free to report retaliation or further issues safely.

Tasia Duske, CEO, Museum Hack

Create a Committee of HR Executives

At our company, we create a committee of three HR executives, and the employees have the opportunity to present their complaint to the committee. The committee would then investigate the complaint and make a recommendation to the CEO. This process is a highly effective and appropriate way for holding managers and leaders accountable while also protecting the rights of employees. Additionally, it removes any doubts of bias or influence when three individuals are investigating a complaint instead of just one.

Antreas Koutis, Administrative Manager, Financer

Bring in Personalized Practices for Conflict Resolution

Divergences of opinion happen all the time in the workplace. However, when a conflict between manager and employee begins to impact company results and team productivity, it is essential to create strategies to deal with them. 

Active listening can be a key factor in minimizing conflict between manager and employee. Being all ears is a great asset for HR to understand both positions and put themselves in their places to facilitate the mediation of the conflict. Listening is the first option to reduce the impact of a conflict. And this doesn't mean agreeing with everything they say. But, HR needs to respect and empathize by listening to what everyone has to say. Finally, HR needs to be part of the conflict resolution by bringing in personalized practices such as guiding managers and employees on how to deal with each other without overstepping the company's boundaries and code of conduct.

Ricardo von Groll, Manager, Talentify

Listen to Both Sides to Observe Fairness

Be objective when handling employee complaints against a leader. Make sure you listen to both sides because that's the only way you can assess if the employee acts rationally when filing the complaints. It also gives you a much better and proper understanding of the leader's actions, which are sometimes justifiable, especially if they are not against company policies or moral standards. When the leader is at fault, do not hesitate to impose disciplinary actions, regardless if you have affiliations in and outside the office. This boosts the trust of your employees in the company and gives them the impression that you are doing your job correctly. Most importantly, it protects your integrity as an HR leader, which also preserves the company's overall reputation.

Adam Garcia, CEO / Owner, The Stock Dork

Be Transparent and Honest With Any Complaints

Leadership wants to hear how they can improve. My approach is simply taking that angle and beginning the conversation with a positive statement and asking for their assistance in resolving the issue. I state the complaint; listen to their comments and create an action plan from there. It usually ends with the leaders’ willingness to resolve and move forward.

Diana Minelli, Sr. HR Manager, Wellinks

Hold an Unbiased Meeting and Keep Communication Open

Handling employee complaints against a manager or leader can be difficult. As an HR leader, it is important to be unbiased and objective when handling these complaints. One best practice is to hold a meeting with the employee who made the complaint and the manager or leader accused of wrongdoing. In this meeting, both parties should have the opportunity to share their side of the story. After hearing both sides, it will be easier to decide how to proceed.

Another best practice is to keep open communication between all parties involved. This will help to ensure that everyone is on the same page and that misunderstandings can be avoided. These best practices can effectively handle employee complaints and maintain a healthy work environment.

Tracey Beveridge, HR Director, Personnel Checks

Take the Complaint Seriously

Always take the complaint seriously. Employees need to feel like their concerns will be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. Once you have listened to the employee and gathered all of the relevant information, you will need to decide if the complaint warrants an investigation. If it does, then you will need to determine who will conduct the investigation and what the process will entail. This may require a 360-degree feedback process in order to get a well-rounded view of the situation.

After the investigation is complete, you will need to make a determination based on the findings. If the complaint is found to be valid, then appropriate action must be taken in order to address the issue. This could involve coaching or counseling for the manager or leader in question, or in some cases, termination may be the only solution.

Linda Shaffer, Chief People Operations Officer, Checkr

React Quickly to Any Complaints

Regardless of how big or small, be prepared to listen and ask questions when an employee comes to me with a complaint. It helps to get all the information while the employee still remembers it. If a meeting right away is not possible, I choose a time that works for the employee. 

When an employee confides in me, they should be aware of which information is secret and which I need to reveal when I look into the situation. For instance, if I look into harassment or discrimination, I reveal facts to the manager or supervisor who is allegedly responsible. However, the worker must inform me right once if there is any retribution or another problem with the person (s). Finally, it's crucial to communicate to the employee what will happen next and what to expect.

Kathryn Snapka, Founding Partner, The Snapka Law Firm

Be a Listening Ear all the Time

Working in the field of Human Resources and dealing with employee issues/complaints go hand-in-hand. When tackling workplace issues it's important to be that listening ear to all employees. What does this mean? Set time aside to listen, analyze, and also ask follow-up questions regarding the issue(s) at hand.

By carefully listening to an employee's problem, this not only makes the employee feel valued, but it truly makes the individual feel heard. As an HR professional, being able to lead an organization by creating this open and safe place is an ultimate goal.

Jennifer Ezeuka, Manager, People Operations, Paxful

Document Everything as You Address the Issue

Unbiased Protocol is a must, regardless of one's position within the company.
One must document the concern that is being brought to attention about a leader's behavior. The HR team appreciates when there is evidence and supporting documents to prove your case. As a team member in the management / HR Role, you must address these concerns with the leader and communicate the impact it has on the company's human capital and culture. Leaders support growth or respond to evidence thoughtfully, hence show those findings if needed while this is being addressed as an anonymous complaint against them to protect retaliation and support the culture of improvement within the organization.

Megha Raja, HR Director, Graniti Vicentia LLC

Ask the Employee for a Proposed Solution

When an employee complains about a manager it’s easy to get overly focused on documenting the details since it’s such a key piece in the investigative process. However, my advice is to pause, lean in, ask open-ended questions, and deeply listen for what they are truly asking to change as a result of the complaint. 

One way to do this is to ask the employee for a proposed solution. By changing the employee's mindset from complaining to a solutions-focused approach, it uncovers information that would otherwise get overlooked. It’s in their proposed solution that you’ll likely find the root cause of the issue. Often, it has less to do with the complaint and more about factors driving the manager’s behavior. Creating a psychologically safe discussion that fosters authentic disclosure about the core issue will save time and allow you to more quickly achieve an effective resolution.

Emily Lawson, People and Culture Manager, Nordic Naturals

Develop Clear Complaint Processes that Foster Trust

As an HR Operations Manager, my best practice for handling team member complaints against a manager actually begins way before the complaint is launched. My practice is to proactively establish and communicate procedures for handling complaints. This empowers employees, builds trust, and adds security to a process that oftentimes feels scary. Once complaints are received, I've found that being responsive, listening, and leading a thoughtful investigation process is the best way to support employees and build an organization where employees feel safe providing feedback.

Brittney Simpson, HR Operations Manager, Walker Miller Energy Services


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