Resolving workplace complaints effectively is an essential skill for HR professionals and people managers who may need to address a range of complaints, from low-level operational "gripes", to business-threatening allegations of fraud, harassment, or endemic abuse.

According to Lander & Rogers' Workplace Relations & Safety Partner Mark Sullivan, effective communication is at the heart of being able to successfully manage and resolve these types of issues. "From identifying sufficient information about the complaint to understanding what a satisfactory resolution would be to the complainant, it is important for employers to keep the quality of communication with those involved at the top of mind," Sullivan said at a recent briefing.

While it may seem straightforward, Sullivan highlighted that complaints come in varying degrees of seriousness, so it is important to investigate and obtain the full version of events from everyone involved before drawing any conclusions. "It may seem surprising, but there are many examples of where an employer has made a determination about a complaint without all of the facts. It is important to ensure that you obtain all relevant information as, when speaking to the people involved, you may learn that there is actually a much larger or serious, long-term issue, and that a more extensive investigation is necessary".

Sullivan also warned that in order to treat employees fairly and to protect the integrity of the investigation, HR professionals and people managers must also communicate appropriately with the employee who is the subject of the complaint. He explained that, "It is important to inform the employee of the allegations against them and provide them with an opportunity to be heard and to be represented as part of the investigation process. We have seen many instances where this important part of the procedure hasn't always taken place and it can have significant reputational and financial consequences for the employer. It is also important to consider the possible impact of the investigation process on the health and safety of the respondent to the complaint, and whether adequate support is being provided".

When faced with a complaint, Sullivan's advice for employers is to, "Take a step back and ask yourself whether you truly know what the complaint is and if you know enough from the complainant to be able to approach the alleged perpetrator for their response. Employers must also ensure that they are adhering to their own company policies which may specify the type and extent of communication that is required when addressing a formal complaint".