Best practice for handling employee complaints

by HCA28 Aug 2012

It’s often up to HR professionals to field employee complaints, but doing so can be both draining and time-consuming – now new research has found it may be time to revise the ‘door is always open’ policy.

If you feel less able to concentrate and complete tasks after listening to someone complain, it might not just be a feeling as researchers have found that enduring 30 minutes or more of negativity may actually damage neurons in the part of the brain used for problem solving.

While some complaints might be valid and important, there’s a big difference between looking for solutions to a problem, and non-stop complaining, author Trevor Blake said. “Typically, people who are complaining don't want a solution; they just want you to join in the indignity of the whole thing,” Blake said. It may be advisable to revisit your complaints policy, and alert employees that the correct processes must be followed if they wish to make an official complaint.

Problem solving is a key component of HR’s task load, and there are best-practice tips to follow in the dealing with the receipt of complaints. According to a New South Wales government factsheet on best practice response systems at the Health Care Complaints Commission, people complain because:

  • they want an acknowledgement that something went wrong and an explanation of why
  • they want an apology for the distress they experienced
  • they do not want to see other people facing a similar problem
  • they want to improve the service for themselves or others in the future
  • they want someone to be blamed, punished or held accountable for what happened
  • they want compensation

Tips for responding to a complaint

  • Acknowledge the complaint
  • Try to resolve the complaint directly with the complainant
  • Be aware of differing views of what happened and what was said
  • Reassure the complainant
  • Have a complaint handling mechanism already in place

Every complaint is different, so the approach to resolving it will differ depending on:

  • the nature of the complaint (the seriousness and the complexity)
  • the complainant’s wishes
  • the issues the complaint raises
  • how the complaint came to you


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