Employee complaints: Don’t promise confidentiality
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Employee complaints: Don’t promise confidentiality

You and your managers probably already know that employee complaints about serious matters like harassment, discrimination, bullying and the like are to be taken VERY seriously. After all, if your organization fails to act, you may be legally liable for any harm done to the complaining employee’s performance, career and/or psyche.

But even if managers understand this general point, they can still make serious mistakes that jeopardize the proper handling of a complaint.

Here’s one such mistake: promising the complaining employee that his or her complaint will remain perfectly confidential.

Sure, the manager and HR will want to keep the complaint as quiet as possible. You won’t shout it from the housetops, or dish about it in a company-wide e-mail. And you’ll direct anyone who does know about the complaint to keep that knowledge to him- or herself.

But you can’t keep the complaint 100% under wraps. If you try to, you’re likely to hamper the full investigation that you MUST do in order to discharge your responsibility under the law.

How might that look in real life? Well, suppose you’re investigating Barb’s sexual harassment complaint against Bill, and you’ve interviewed both of them about it. Barb has told you that there are two potential witnesses to Bill’s objectionable behavior – Frank and Julia – but Barb is also pleading with you to keep her complaint on the down-low. She doesn’t want to get the reputation of a whiner in her colleagues’ eyes. So she urgently asks you not to talk to Frank and Julia.

You feel bad for Barb – after all, why should she suffer for having possibly been harassed? – and so you don’t call Frank or Julia in.
Later on, though, Barb sues for sexual harassment and you have to defend your investigation in court. If Barb’s lawyer is worth his or her salt, the lawyer will hop on the fact that you truncated the investigation, and argue that you’re therefore responsible for failing to protect Barb.

The situation can be even worse. Sometimes an employee will complain, but afterward have second thoughts and ask you to forget the whole thing. That’s a wrinkle on the request for confidentiality. Again, you can’t possibly comply, no matter how the employee begs. Your responsibility toward your organization – and the employee’s best interests – has to take precedence over any feelings of sympathy you might have.

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