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How Can I Make Employees Feel Safe in Our Process

Jun 10, 2014
Deb Muller


Imagine this: you have a complaint to lodge about a situation in your work environment, but you are hesitant to speak up because you are paralyzed with fear, worried that you will be labeled a “problem” employee. What if your manager finds out what you are doing? Will anything change once you hit the submit button?


These thoughts and more may be going through your employees’ heads when they think about filing a complaint, and perhaps with good reason! Most employees have no idea what happens to a complaint once it’s filed. That could be the reason that a Louis Harris and Associates survey revealed that 62% of respondents who reported being harassed at work took no action. And that’s bad news for the employer. Poor management, policy violations and inappropriate behaviors left unchecked can lead to lost productivity, high turnover and potentially devastating legal liabilities. If something isn’t going right, you need to hear about it, understand the facts and know to take appropriate action.

Filing a complaint can be a scary process for employees when they have no idea what the investigation process entails. And it is often the “not knowing” that can prevent an employee from coming forward with important information. When a process is outlined, defined and adhered to, everyone involved can ensure the entire process is transparent, consistent and secure. That’s why we created this methodology.

Here are some of the common worries that employees have about formally communicating a concern about what’s going on in the work environment as well as what your team can do to create a safe environment for them during and after the investigation process.

Who has access to the information that I submit? An employee might not feel comfortable filing a complaint against a manager if they thought the manager could gain access to that information. Even when submitted anonymously it is often quite easy for an employer to identify where a complaint originated based upon facts included or specific patterns of behavior identified. Employees need to feel confident that only a small team of individuals will be privy to the information that they submit, and your HR team needs to effectively communicate and enforce this confidentiality. posted a great piece on clearing up the issue of confidentiality in the process. They said:

“HR people (or managers, for that matter) who mislead employees about confidentiality not only are operating without integrity but are also pretty much guaranteeing that over time no one will trust them, respect them, or tell them anything.”

Has this happened before?

Employees who file a complaint will often wonder if they’re alone, being singled out or just overreacting. While it would be inappropriate to disclose to the employee that similar issues have been reported, having access to any past indiscretions is critical to the investigator. Filing cabinets or dispersed desk files just aren’t capable of connecting the dots, but current technology and a reliable database can make it easy and efficient. Similar and past complaints must be considered in all investigations.

How secure is the information?

There is a perception that managers have a way of getting access to things they want. Employees need to be assured that the information regarding their complaint is stored in a secure way. Using a separate electronic repository with individual passwords and role-specific permissions that can be managed and updated as personnel, roles and organizational relationships change will help ensure that confidential information remains so. Click here to check out the HR Acuity On-Demand security standards.

What training does the investigator have?

“Sure, I feel perfectly at ease handing over information that could potentially damage my career to an employee who has no idea what to do with it.”– Said no one ever! Proper training and regular assessments of proficiency are a must for anyone responsible for investigating an HR complaint. There is methodology, compliance factors and proper etiquette that cannot simply be Googled. Want to know more about making sure your HR investigators have the skills you require? Click here to find out about HR investigations training options.

Will I be updated?

The information shared in a complaint will often carry a lot of weight, and that weight is just sitting on the shoulders of the person who filed it. While you can’t provide them with a specific timeline or the details of your investigation, make certain that they know who their point of contact is, what they can expect from the process and what they can expect to happen next. Black holes are of no use to anyone. Keep in touch. Even if there is nothing new to report or ask, a quick call to let them know the investigation is still in process, goes a long way.

Will my complaint be taken seriously?

Is this a waste of time? Does my employer really care? So many typical questions run through the mind of employees before and during an investigation – particularly if the complaint made is against a more senior or executive staff member. Don’t leave your employees questioning! Demonstrate your organization’s intent to be fair and comprehensive in reviewing the situation: Follow up to the complaint immediately. Start the investigation in a timely manner. Make expectations regarding behaviors during and after the investigation clear to all involved parties and enforce these rules. Even if the complaining employee doesn’t agree with the investigation outcome, he/she will be much more accepting of the results if the employee believes a fair process took place. And your respect for the process will not go unnoticed by others.

Employees who are brought into the investigation as witnesses will recognize the way in which the organization is handling the situation and as a result will feel more comfortable that any future situations in which they might be involved – either as the complainant or the subject – will be handled with a similar degree of appropriateness and fairness. Employees should and can feel safe and protected when they come forward to report concerns in the workplace. By ensuring that your leaders know how to follow an appropriate process you safeguard the entire organization by ensuring that vital issues are not just swept under the rug. Hesitation and unease shouldn’t get in the way of employees working together with management to create a productive and positive environment.

photo credit: via photopin cc

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.

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