A Comprehensive Guide to Navigating Employee Complaints for Managers

Posted 30.05.23 by:

Managers often find themselves at the epicenter of employee complaints in an increasingly complex work environment. These challenges are inevitable, whether it’s about a new policy, an interpersonal issue, or even workplace discrimination. 

Managing and navigating team member complaints plays a crucial role in shaping the workplace culture, employee morale, and, ultimately, the organization’s success. We’ve created this comprehensive guide, a go-to resource for managers to handle team member complaints masterfully.

Managers like you can turn these challenges into opportunities for growth and improvement by understanding the nature of employee complaints, recognizing when to act, and knowing how to manage the complaint process effectively. 

It’s not just about resolving issues; it’s about fostering a healthy workplace culture that empowers everyone. This guide covers everything from legal aspects and potential employer violations to strategies for managing discrimination. We’ve included step-by-step advice based on 30+ years of health and safety management experience to help you handle complaints with impartiality, grace, and utmost professionalism.

Let’s reshape the way we perceive and navigate employee complaints. After all, every complaint is a chance to improve your workplace. Are you ready to become the master of navigating team member complaints in your workplace? Let’s get started.

Understanding Employee Complaints

Workplace complaints can range from interpersonal issues, like harassment, discrimination, and bullying, to organizational matters, such as workload, inadequate safety, or inadequate resources. You need to understand the difference between the types of complaints you will face and how you should best handle them. Understanding what differentiates them is essential to knowing the correct course of action. Furthermore, it’s essential to recognize the potential of complaints, their causes, and how they negatively affect operations. Let’s take a look at some of the different types of complaints you might encounter.

Interpersonal Complaints

Interpersonal complaints are based on events that occur between two or more people, where one is left feeling hurt or attacked in some way. A three-year study that focused on workplace interpersonal conflicts (WICs) in the healthcare industry found that 63% occurred during telephone communications. 

The study showed that many of the complaints derived from others bossing or negatively talking to coworkers, often involving exchanges between nurses and doctors.

The study reveals that interpersonal communication is critical to preventing and resolving workplace conflicts within any industry, such as healthcare. Furthermore, by understanding that much of the conflict occurs between worker-tier and manager-tier levels within an organization, it stands to reason that managers in many organizations could use a lesson in interpersonal communications.

I’ve got some great tips to help you maintain composure and the right frame of mind to deal with complaints properly, so stick with me for those tips later.

Types of Interpersonal Complaints

  • Harassment and bullying could include repeated offensive jokes, insults, slights, and more serious forms of harassment like sexual harassment.
  • Discrimination can occur when employees feel they have been mistreated due to their race, sex, age, disability, religion, or other protected characteristics.
  • Disrespect and incivility can involve rudeness, condescension, or a lack of respect for others’ ideas or contributions.
  • Communication issues often center around a lack of communication, poor communication, or miscommunication, leading to misunderstandings and conflict.
  • Workplace violence can include physical threats, acts of violence, and psychological or emotional abuse.
  • Personal issues often involve personal disagreements or conflicts that spill over into the workplace, such as personality clashes.

Safety Complaints

Workplace environment complaints often involve issues related to the physical work environment, such as noise levels, cleanliness, or safety hazards. Safety complaints are to be taken seriously, as all complaints. However, keep your liability in mind. If a worker feels unsafe and you force them, and they get hurt, it’s on you. So, don’t do that. If a worker does not feel safe, that is their right. It’s your responsibility to listen and do something about it.

Operational Complaints

  • Workplace environment complaints often involve issues related to the physical work environment, such as noise levels, cleanliness, or safety hazards.
  • Performance Criticism complaints usually involve issues with an individual’s job performance, often seen as unfair or unconstructive criticism.
  • Leadership issues. I think everyone has had one bad boss at some point. Complaints can stem from perceived issues with management style or decisions, such as favoritism, lack of support, or poor leadership.
  • Task-related conflicts typically involve disagreements over roles, responsibilities, workloads, and decision-making.

External Source Complaints

External source complaints come in from clients or the general public. External sources of complaints can cripple a company’s marketing efforts, so like other complaints, they must be addressed quickly and professionally.

When Should Managers Act on an Employee Complaint?

If a team member wants to launch a formal complaint, you need to act immediately with an initial assessment. In your initial assessment, you’ll need to clarify and identify two things: The gravity and the urgency of the incident that triggered the complaint.

The gravity of the complaint is the depth to which others are affected by a triggering event. It could be a somewhat subjective concept because an adverse event could affect one person greatly or many people mildly. Judging the severity or gravity of a situation might become slightly subjective, depending on your viewpoint.

A general rule to follow for both the gravity and urgency of an event is that if anyone is hurt or there is a risk of being injured, then it should be considered an emergency incident, and you should act swiftly, taking the appropriate action.

Step-by-Step Guide to Handling Employee Complaints

Complaints can throw anyone’s day off the rails. They tend to come at us when we aren’t expecting it because if we expected it, naturally, something would be done to prevent such a scenario. However, life has a funny way of making things complicated, so I put together this simple guide to help you uncomplicate the situation and institute a standard procedure, that is, as best as possible.

What You Need

A robust means of documentation is a definite requirement when handling employee (or client) complaints. Furthermore, you’ll want to put on your professional face – that is, you’ll want to listen, document, and direct the situation to satiate key stakeholders and quench any negative emotions. Moreover, you’ll want to embrace a standard practice, so a standard form or template is key. 

Download our template and print it. Or, customize the template in our mobile application and cut your time in half. Once you have the report in hand or on the device, it’s time to take a few notes, fill in what you can, and acknowledge the complaint.

Acknowledging The Complaint

When acknowledging a complaint, there are two things that a manager must attempt to do to handle complaints appropriately.

Impartiality is key. It is the first and likely most essential aspect the manager would do best to hold as a top priority. An unbiased and non-judging attitude is best. Furthermore, it would be best to refrain from taking sides prematurely to conduct a fair and thorough investigation.

Grace is the next essential aspect of how a manager ought to handle a complaint. Handling a complaint with grace means demonstrating empathy, tact, and respect. 

Investigating The Complaint

Remember when I mentioned putting on a professional face? Here’s where it can get tricky, especially if you’re dealing with strong personalities. However, you need to understand what happened or what could happen (if a safety-related complaint). 

Resolving The Complaint

Separating two or more parties is crucial if an interpersonal complaint is at play. Following the separation, you can ascertain the situation’s who, why, what, how, and when and document it accordingly. Remember, you are an impartial referee, not a judge or jury. It’s your job to remain impartial and gather all the facts. If someone breaks company policy, you need to understand how and why.

Communication And Follow-Up

Communicating resolutions to stakeholders when an interpersonal complaint is involved is a sensitive task that requires tact, discretion, and respect for privacy. It’s not a situation where you should joke around; you’ll want to remain the impartial referee. Here are a few tips to help you handle the situation with professionalism:

  1. Respect confidentiality above all when a team member or client complains. Employees who go as far as a formal complaint have typically faced more than their fair share of problems. Most people will go out of their way not to cause a fuss, as they might see it. So, if an employee comes to you with a complaint, they expect you to follow a sort of Hippocratic Oath in that they would hope you don’t announce that they complained. People usually don’t want to instigate, after all.
  2. Communicate directly with all stakeholders. A good manager knows how to listen and gives all stakeholders a chance to speak directly, often one-on-one, to get the information from their perspective.
  3. Maintain procedures, protocol, and consistent messaging. Due to the delicate nature of the complaint process, it’s best to have a standard procedure and form to complete to communicate the formal complaint.
  4. Talk to a lawyer or HR professional. Each state has different ways of handling things, and you want to ensure that you are maintaining compliance with local, state, and federal regulations. On that note, let’s look at some of the legal aspects of complaints so that you can be well prepared.

Legal Aspects of Complaints

Complaints are the first formal step towards landing in a court of law. We don’t anticipate things to escalate, but unfortunately, people will do as they do. The best thing to do is know the law, your rights, and how employees carry the same rights. When you understand that everyone is treated equally under the law, it’s easy to implement a set of standards within your organization that promotes these rights.

Labor laws for employers and employees can change with time, so here are some resources to find the latest information about handling complaints in your state, province, or country.



USA – Labor laws and worker protections – USA.gov

Complaints and The Investigation Process – US Department of Labor


In Canada, labor issues are handled at the provincial level. However, federally regulated employees can complain to the federal labor program here.

Fostering a Healthy Complaints Management Culture

Fostering a Healthy Complaints Management Culture is essential. Learn more at 1stReporting.com.

Maintaining a safe and positive workplace is critical in today’s industries. Moreover, with trends like quiet quitting, cancel culture, and other such phenomena on the rise, your organization’s last need is an unsafe or toxic work environment.

What You Can Do

Regular training and a system for professionally handling complaints are great places to start. Using a standard Employee Complaint Form or, even better, a digital reporting application like 1st Reporting is an even more effective strategy.

Digital reporting platforms are much more secure than their traditional paper-based counterparts. Furthermore, an employee will feel more comfortable completing a complaint form on their smartphone as opposed to marching into the office to ask for a complaint form. 

1st Reporting has a standard Employee Complaint Form for download or on our application. It’s noteworthy to mention that you can take complaint forms to a whole new level using our public reporting functionality. Isn’t it time you made your complaint reporting process more efficient? Try 1st Reporting today.

Wrap Up

Navigating employee complaints can be challenging, but this guide puts you in the driver’s seat. You’re not just resolving issues; you’re sparking growth, enhancing culture, and driving your organization’s success. Complaints are now your allies, spotlighting hidden issues and shaping a safer, more respectful workplace.

Remember, as a manager, your actions and reactions mold the work environment. So, embrace this challenge, and treat every complaint as a stepping stone to a better workplace. Each is an opportunity to refine, improve, and evolve from interpersonal to safety to operational complaints.

So, get set to drive the change, fellow managers. After all, a better workplace is not just about resolving complaints; it’s about turning them into pathways for long-term progress. 

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