Six steps to triaging a complaint

Angela Seach
July 7, 2021

So, you’ve received a complaint, and it seems complicated, messy and unclear. What do you do?

We all understand that complaints must be handled in a timely, confidential and procedurally fair way, but it is not always clear what those concepts mean in practice.  If you follow these six steps, you can be confident that the approach you take to resolving the complaint will be the right one.

Establish the complaint details

Identify the nature of the complaint from the material you have. Make a record of it and when it was received.

Consider whether the nature of the complaint so serious that it requires immediate action in order to mitigate a significant risk.  For example, if the complaint makes allegations that include a risk of serious injury, or ongoing fraud, you will need to take immediate action to address the risk or notify the appropriate person or authorities before proceeding.  Depending on the details, and possibly your industry, you may also need to notify the police or statutory authorities.

Occasionally, a complaint is made anonymously. This can be tricky to deal with because generally, it would be procedurally unfair to the respondent to put anonymous allegations to them.  If you receive an anonymous complaint, you should try to ascertain who made the complaint.

If you are unable to identify a complainant, you will need to decide whether the allegations warrant organisation led action in relation to the complaint.  This will require consideration of potential risk to organisation, staff and the response that should be taken to address the potential risk.

Where you assess that the matter does not warrant a report to an external body, nor an organisation led response, you should record the considerations and  the basis for this decision.

Determine who should manage the resolution of the complaint

Once you have determined that the complaint requires further action by your organisation, you will need to consider who the respondent is, and in particular, whether the respondent is in a senior position within the organisation. If the respondent is a senior person, you will need to determine who the most appropriate person is to manage the process – for example, it would generally not be appropriate for a staff member to manage or investigate a complaint against someone more senior than them.

You will also need to assess any potential, actual or perceived bias issues on a case-by-case basis for every complaint.  It might be considered appropriate for a person to manage a relatively minor complaint against someone they have a connection to, where the outcome, if proven, would not involve breach of policy and disciplinary action, particularly if resourcing meant it wasn’t practicable to hand it to someone else to manage.  However, it is unlikely to be appropriate for a person to investigate a more serious complaint against someone they have a connection to because of what is at stake if the complaint is proven, and the potential for grounds for appeal to a finding and/or decision to take disciplinary action.  If you have a connection to one of the parties, don’t make the call yourself – raise it transparently with someone who can make the decision. 

Assess the complaint

There are several factors that will inform whether the complaint needs to be investigated or dealt with in some other way.

The first factor is identifying whether, if proven, the allegations constitute a breach of policy. 

Then, if there is a breach of policy alleged, you should consider whether, if proven, the breach would warrant serious disciplinary action such as dismissal.  If the answer is yes, based on the information you have, you should proceed with an investigation.

But if the answer is no, or you are unsure, you will need to consider the potential impact of any investigation on the ongoing working relationship between the parties, and it may be worthwhile to consider possible alternatives to investigation and the action that would be required at conclusion of investigation to rebuild the working relationship.

Regardless of whether you decide to investigate, or take alternative action, you will need to consider whether there is any management intervention needed to protect the complainant, the respondent, other staff or to address any organisation risks.  Such action may include suspension, redeployment, changes to process or procedures, or temporary changes to reporting lines.

Finally, determine whether you need to take steps in order to secure and preserve potentially relevant evidence, and if so, take those steps independent of the complainant and respondent.

Clarify the complaint with the complainant and discuss the complaint resolution process

It is common for complaints to lack specific relevant detail and include unhelpful detail such as emotional language and statements regarding the impact of the conduct being complained about. 

If you believe, based on the initial reading of the complaint, that the matter will or may require investigation, you will need to confirm, either from the complaint itself or more likely via an interview with the complainant, that the allegations are clear and detailed, such that they can be put to the respondent in a procedurally fair way.

An allegation, put to a respondent in a procedurally fair way, basically means that the allegation contains sufficient information for the respondent to understand what they are being accused of, and are able to respond.  Think about what information you need from complainant in order to get clear and detailed allegations capable of being put to the respondent. 

You will also need to assess whether the allegation is capable of being investigated. An allegation may not be capable of being investigated because it is stale or historical, or it may be that critical evidence is no longer available. But don’t assume that an allegation cannot be investigated simply because there were no witnesses, for example.  There may be other evidence that can be gathered to make a robust finding of fact.

Even if the complaint document contains sufficient detail to get you to this point, it is still appropriate to meet with the complainant, because it will be useful to get a sense of what the complainant wants or expects out of the process.  Don’t make assumptions about what the complainant will want. 

When you meet with the complainant, it will be important to explain that the organisation ultimately determines how the complaint is handled and whilst their wishes are considered, these are only part of the decision-making process. It is useful to also explain the different options for complaint handling and what the role of the complainant is in each of those options.

Do not give the complainant assurances that you cannot give. 

Ensure the complainant has access to support services as necessary.  You can provide support without compromising your role in handling the complaint. 

Identify the most appropriate action

Once you have gathered all of the available information from the complainant, the next step in the triage process is to determine the best approach to dealing with the complaint, that addresses the complaint, fosters long term outcomes, promotes a better working relationship and harmony in the workplace and has the best chance of reducing future occurrence of alleged behaviour.

At this stage, you should ensure you are clear on any policies or procedures that prescribe how certain types of complaints are resolved within the organisation.

Note the more serious the complaint or the more senior the respondent, or if there is a significant power or level disparity between the complainant and the respondent, the more likely that an allegation should proceed to investigation.

Based on the information obtained in Steps 1-4, is it appropriate to deal with the complaint other than by investigation?  Is another approach the most effective way of addressing the complaint in the long term? These may include:

  • Facilitated discussion or mediation
  • Conflict coaching
  • Performance feedback and/or targeted performance improvement coaching
  • Workplace Review

Implement resolution

Irrespective of whether you decide to investigate or implement an alternative approach to resolution, the person who conducts the process must have the skills required to undertake the process and be considered neutral by the parties.

Remember, not every complaint must be investigated, but every complaint must be addressed.

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