Even at the most well-run companies, workplace complaints are inevitable. In fact, few topics generate more questions for employment lawyers. And while every complaint must be addressed independently, responding with a consistent protocol is the best way to protect your company. Here are the questions you should ask, regardless of the circumstances:

What is the complaint about? Complaints range from the trivial — personality disputes, for example — to serious matters like sexual harassment, discrimination or unlawful retaliation. This means that it is critical to know exactly what you’re dealing with before making too many decisions.

If a complaint even hints at harassment, discrimination or retaliation based upon a legally protected characteristic such as gender, race, national origin, religion or disability, the complaint must be taken seriously. The likelihood that your company will be exposed to serious financial liability is contingent upon your ability to understand the seriousness of the complaint and investigate it accordingly.

Who made the complaint? Each complaint should be given the same attention, regardless of who makes it (but your specific response will vary depending on his or her relationship with the company). For example, is it a current or former employee, and is he or she represented by a union? Or, was it made by a customer or a third party? Each of these circumstances comes with different challenges, so it’s important to establish this early.

Is human resources in the loop? As a supervisor, you have a responsibility to field complaints, but you shouldn’t try to resolve them — especially the most serious ones — without help from your human resources team. Passing the complaint on to HR is the best way to ensure that you and the company are protected.

What needs to be documented? There’s another reason HR should be involved from the start: they are likely to have experience in workplace investigations — something that even the best supervisors often lack. An experienced investigator will know what questions to ask of relevant witnesses and what evidence to collect. The key here is that everything be documented, including witness summaries and steps taken throughout the investigation.

How can the company avoid even the appearance of retaliation? Complaints are challenging enough on their own, but they become even more so if the company is perceived to retaliate. When this occurs, the company’s alleged retaliation — and not the original complaint — can becomes the bigger issue. As a result, the company must be diligent in removing any appearance of retaliation.

At minimum, supervisors or managers who work with the employee must be regularly reminded of the company’s anti-retaliation policy. This doesn’t mean that the employee can’t be held accountable for his or her actions. Rather, it means complaining employees must be treated the same as all other employees or the company will be put at further risk.

Do you need help from the outside? Many complaints can be handled internally, but if the complaint rises to the level of an official discrimination charge or lawsuit, then it is time to get a lawyer on the phone.

Answering these questions takes time, so it may be tempting to just hope the problem just goes away. Don’t make that mistake. And casual response to complaints is usually the quickest path to making the problem worse. It is good to think of your investigation as an investment that protects you and your company. Like so many things that affect your business — it’s better to be too responsive than not responsive enough.

ADAM BARTROM is a partner the Labor and Employment Department of Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Fort Wayne office. He can be reached at adam.bartrom@btlaw.com or 260-425-4629.

ADAM BARTROM is a partner the Labor and Employment Department of Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Fort Wayne office. He can be reached at adam.bartrom@btlaw.com or 260-425-4629.

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