Workplace investigations: being the respondent in a workplace complaint

Being the respondent in a workplace complaint can be stressful. When you find out you’re involved, you’ll likely have a lot of questions: What should I do next? Who can help me? How do I continue to work with someone directly when they’ve made a complaint about me?

Here are some important things you should know as the respondent, to help you clear up any uncertainty and ease the stress.

Know when and how to respond

First, you need to fully understand the complaint before responding. You can request the relevant information and evidence from your human resources department. Make sure you’re given an appropriate amount of time to respond.

You should also have the opportunity to respond at other times through the investigation. For example, you should be allowed to respond to the investigator’s report, findings and proposed actions.

It’s important to put your best foot forward and respond correctly at each stage of the process. The best plan is to seek legal advice straight away, to ensure you’re being treated fairly.

Guard your reputation

As the respondent to an allegation you’ll want to defend your position and protect your reputation. You don’t want this complaint to affect the future of your career.

In one case we worked on, it was clear the confidentiality of the investigation would not be respected. We wrote to the employer requesting they take steps to address the breach of confidentiality and prevent further breaches. This achieved our goal of protecting the reputation of our senior executive client.

Remain professional towards the complainant

Working with the complainant can be difficult, but is often necessary. Be careful about how you communicate with the complainant, as your behaviour during the investigation process can have serious consequences on your employment relationship.

Where possible, try to:

  • limit communications
  • keep all communications strictly work-related and professional
  • have a witness present during all face-to-face communications
  • avoid any inflammatory comments and topics – in particular, never talk about the complaint itself, and
  • speak to your human resources department if you’re concerned about working with the complainant (e.g. if you’re the complainant’s supervisor).

It’s also crucial that you do not talk to your colleagues about the complaint. This can come across as victimising the complainant and may have negative consequences.

Make yourself familiar with grievance policies and possible outcomes

Most large organisations have policies in place that deal with the complaints or grievance process. It’s worth reading through them to make sure you’re being treated with procedural fairness in the workplace.

You should also familiarise yourself with what the outcomes might be, so that you can consider some proactive steps towards a positive resolution.

If you’re found liable, consequences can range from a reprimand to termination of your employment. In a case of low level misconduct, you may be able to propose undertaking some training to show that you’re willing to take positive steps to mend the relationship. This can also be a worthwhile step if you’re cleared of any wrongdoing. We acted for a senior public service official whose subordinate made complaints against her. She was cleared of any wrongdoing, however offered to do some online training as a remedial step. This act of good faith helped to keep the employment relationship in a strong position.

Prioritise your mental health

The stress of having a complaint made against you can take its toll on your health. The complaint will likely impact your day-to-day work, and it may also play on your mind when you’re outside the workplace. Complaint resolutions can sometimes take upwards of 12 months – that’s a long time for a workplace complaint to weigh on your mind and affect your mental health.

It’s important to see your GP and develop a plan for looking after your mental health while the investigation is going on. A GP or psychologist may also be able to help you create some strategies for coping with the ongoing process.

If you do find yourself the respondent in a complaint, make sure you act fast. Don’t wait around hoping for things to fix themselves as this will only prolong the issue.

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