Handling a Complaint

The main problems employers have when handling complaints are;

1. Minimising or ignoring complaints

Many employers minimise complaints, treating them as a personality clash or a communication problem. Unfortunately this response does not resolve a complaint but often compounds it. If you ignore bullying it will go underground and you will have little chance to address it effectively.

2. Making false assumptions about complaints

Employers often judge situations without sufficiently investigating them. This leads to faulty conclusions and unsafe measures being taken to resolve situations. Bullying complaints are usually complex. Sometimes it may be the bully making the complaint. Often the person making the complaint is fearful and insecure. Remain impartial and empathetic (not sympathetic).

3. Taking inappropriate steps to deal with complaints

Employers sometimes take a ‘gung ho’ response to a complaint. This may include telling a complainant to deal with the problem themselves (which they may have already unsuccessfully tried to do), or calling a meeting between the parties to 'have a chat' or sort things out. Without the skills or understanding of the issues involved this kind of meeting may end up exacerbating the situation and creating a greater problem for the employer.

4. Blaming the complainant

It is easy to take the perpetrators side and see the complainant as the problem (especially when the perpetrator seems so reasonable, or gets results). This may happen especially when the perpetrator is a manager or supervisor. It is important to recognise that bullying and harassment often happens behind closed doors and you may not have a clear view of the situation. Tread carefully and focus on behaviours rather than trying to understand people's internal motivations or issues. It is too easy to become focused on justifications for inappropriate behaviour so don't be cajoled into justifying bullying behaviours on the grounds that the perpetrator had a right to do what they did. Victims do not deserve to be bullied because they have performance problems, or lack assertive skills. The perpetrator needs to change his/her behaviour
and find a more appropriate way of acting.

For an in-depth guide to dealing with workplace bullying and harassment constructively see details of purchasing "Workplace Bullying and Harassment: A Toolbox for Managers and Supervisors" by Hadyn Olsen. Published by CCH Ltd.

Complaints need to be handled in the following ways;

a) Take it seriously

The complainant has most likely been experiencing this for some time and it is serious to them. Rather than seeing the complainant as the problem consider that the complainant may be providing you with some significant information about a serious problem that needs to be resolved.

b) Listen non-judgmentally

Don’t judge the complaint based on your perspective alone – most bullying goes on behind closed doors and managers are likely to only see the ‘good side’ of the perpetrator. Chronic bullies are adept at creating a ‘good side’ for the boss to see.

c) Hold your judgment

Don’t judge a complaint until you have heard from both parties. This may save a lot of embarrassment of time and expense later on.

d) Focus on the issues

This will require separating the issues from the personalities. What is the complainant wanting to have this problem resolved? What is the perpetrator wanting? What are the real issues? This information can be gathered without having the parties together in one room. You may need to work with them separately until you are confident a meeting between them will be constructive. In cases of bullying we suggest not using direct mediation because this often inflicts further damage on the victim.

e) Work out solutions

Get the parties to work on solutions and include agreements about behaviour and dealing with problems in the future.

f) Ensure fairness, safety and non-victimisation

Complainants should not be punished for having brought a complaint forward. Neither should alleged perpetrators be judged or treated unfairly. Ensure everyone is treated fairly.

g) Get assistance if you are unsure

These situations are usually complex and difficult to resolve. Get advice. If necessary call in expert assistance. WAVE operates a nationwide consultancy service that includes email, phone, web-live calling. Email info wave.org.nz for more information.

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