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Ethical Leaders and Employee Complaints

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Every year, Better Business Bureau (BBB) solicits applications for its Torch Awards for Ethics. This year, we received more than 80 initial entries. The award application seeks to examine the way business leaders strive for excellence, manage employees, treat customers and engage with their communities. Winners will be announced at our Centennial Celebration on Sept. 19.

In order to be a contender, and a good leader, it’s important for the leadership team “to work consistently to ensure clarity of purposes and an adherence to clear convictions that motivate and unite stakeholders.”
But just as every business receives customer complaints, every business with more than one employee will eventually receive employee complaints. Frequent, clear and two-way, communication will often alleviate a problem before it becomes a complaint.

However, BBB offers a few tips for handling the inevitable — but hopefully infrequent — employee complaint.

Listen carefully. If an employee is angry or upset, allow him or her to vent without interrupting. Stopping the employee mid-story to offer a solution or to contradict facts will likely only escalate the situation. Limit your responses to short confirmations that you’re still listening (such as “Uh-huh” and “I understand”) or verifications of the facts (“So, you put in a time off request on Monday?”).

Withhold judgment. Avoid confrontational language like “calm down” or “that’s not possible.” Hear the entire complaint and, if necessary, conduct your own investigation before deciding what action to take.

Document the meeting. If possible, have another supervisor or human resources representative present. Take notes about the employee’s complaint and what solutions you offered. Confirm the details with the employee to ensure you are both on the same page.

Ask questions. Ask for specific dates of the occurrence(s), whether or not the employee has complained to others in the chain of command and, if so, ask for details about those conversations. Make sure you know all details.

Identify the issue. Not all complaints should be taken at face value. The employee may complain about his hours, but is really upset that he isn’t being heard. If the underlying issue involves discrimination or harassment, that opens you up to additional legal concerns. You may want to consult an attorney about your next course of action.
Collaborate on a solution. Ask the employee how s/he would like to resolve the issue. If you are unwilling to meet those conditions, don’t say “no” or “I can’t.” Propose your own solution and stick to positive language, e.g. “Here’s what I can do …”

Stay out of harm’s way. If the employee gets confrontational or makes threats, walk away. If the situation warrants, have the employee escorted out or call the police. Document the threat and your reaction to it.

Angie Barnett is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland. She can be contacted at 410-347-3981 and abarnett@greatermd.bbb.org.