Dealing with complaints of inappropriate workplace behaviour is arguably on the list of managers least favourite tasks. However, it is important that when a complaint of inappropriate behaviour is made, the issues are addressed, as an untended complaint can often take root and grow into a much bigger issue.
Increased emphasis on organisational values and calling out inappropriate behaviour can also result in employees feeling able to act as upstanders and confront behaviour that might have been previously ignored.
Your first response to a complaint sets the tone for interactions with employees and is taken by team members as an indication of what behaviour is acceptable and tolerated. If a manager fails to address behaviour such as sexist or racist comments or belittling of employees, it sends the message that the comments or behaviours are allowed, if not endorsed. For example, in male-dominated workplaces where sexist comments regarding the role or abilities of women are allowed to flourish, women within those workplaces can become so used to those comments that they may come to accept such behaviour as the norm.
Your response should also reflect the type of workplace culture you expect and the values of your organisation. A failure to address inappropriate behaviour may send the message that an organisation is not committed to its values.
It is important not to prejudge a complaint based on your knowledge of the people involved. Employers need to keep an open mind and demonstrate impartiality where employees are speaking to you about interpersonal conflicts or behaviours that are not in keeping with organisational codes of conduct and values, particularly in situations that involve a whistleblower.
Listen and offer support
When someone comes to you with a complaint:
- Listen, acknowledge the complainant’s feelings, and ask how they would like the complaint to be resolved.
- Give the person raising the issue options for resolving the complaint or consult with HR if you need advice regarding options.
- Offer support from your Employee Assistance Program.
- Document and filenote your conversation and send a follow-up email to the complainant outlining the complaint, potential resolution and the next steps to be taken.
- Take action on the complaint in a timely manner. Follow up with HR if necessary and speak to the complainant about the actions you are taking.
- Maintain confidentiality at all times. It is important for the complainant to understand that, if a formal complaint process needs to be undertaken, in most cases, the complainant needs to be identified for reasons of procedural fairness towards the respondent.
Evaluate and plan a course of action
In determining next steps regarding a complaint of inappropriate behaviour, you will also need to consider:
- the particular details of the complaint;
- whether the inappropriate behaviour raised poses a risk to health and safety and if immediate steps need to be taken to eliminate or minimise those risks;
- the relevant organisational policies;
- time and budget constraints;
- the seriousness of the alleged misconduct and the potential consequences for the respondent if the allegations are proven.
Analysing these factors will allow you to assess the potential risks to the organisation and guide you in determining the most appropriate resolution of the complaint.
Consider your options for resolution
Although a formal investigation may sometimes be necessary when complaints of inappropriate behaviour are made, a number of other alternatives exist if the situation permits:
- a Preliminary Investigation can allow for a less formal exploration of potential allegations and the facts surrounding the behaviour;
- a Workplace Review can explore underlying workplace or team issues;
- Mediation or facilitated discussion with the parties involved; or
- Employee training or coaching.
In the event that an investigation is called for, you can determine the scope and formality of that process depending on the nature of the allegations, their seriousness and the consequences for the employee should the allegations be proven.
As you evaluate potential resolutions for a complaint of inappropriate behaviour, it’s important to consider the any relevant circumstances of the parties, including mental health issues of psychological needs.
While the process of weighing up all the circumstances of an inappropriate behaviour complaint presents challenges, failing to address complaints when they arise ultimately creates a risk to employee health and safety and can expose the organisation to greater risk. By addressing complaints in a timely manner when they arise, you can ensure that you are reinforcing the culture and values of your organisation and effectively and efficiently protecting the health and safety of your employees and managing organisational risk.
About Tanya Hunter
Tanya Hunter applies a sensitive approach to working with vulnerable clients and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and astute understanding of legislative and compliance frameworks and enterprise agreements.
She brings a balanced, impartial approach to the entire process from preliminary analysis of complaints to conducting investigations, creating productive policy guidance and solutions and implementing change projects.