In an ideal world, the workplace would be a harmonious place with employees and managers

Employee complaints need to be faced up to, sooner rather than later working together peacefully but unfortunately this isn’t always the case.

When an employee has a complaint, both the manager and the HR department have integral roles to play in reaching a solution which is fair, reasonable and practical.

Here’s a closer look at how the process should work, and how everyone can play a part in resolving any complaints.

Identifying the problem

In many cases the warning signs will be present long before the employee voices their dissatisfaction, whether it’s a drop in performance or attendance, a negative attitude or the persistent raising of a specific subject.

By nipping any problems in the bud before they arise, a manager may be able to prevent a full blown complaint from developing.

At this stage it can be tackled informally, with the manager and member of staff having a chat in a private location. The tone should be non-confrontational, supportive and concerned, to see if the employee is willing to discuss anything which is bothering them.

It’s important not to dismiss concerns, even if they seem trivial or superficial. Make the employee feel as if you’re really listening to what they have to say, and you may be able to prevent matters from going further. In some cases, you may not be able to offer a magic solution, but knowing that they’ve been able to air their concerns, and have an honest discussion may be enough in some cases to stop resentment building up.

A formal complaint

If you don’t deal with an employee complaint the grievance may spread to other employees.

Once a formal complaint has been raised, the process should follow the documented company procedure. Failure to do so could result in a successful tribunal case for the employee at a later stage so it’s vital to take it seriously.

If the complaint involves the line manager in any way, they must not become involved in the investigation or assessment, or attempt to unduly influence it. Later on, when a resolution is being sought, it may be appropriate for them to contribute.

If the grievance is nothing to do with the department or manager, but about the company’s policies overall for example, an employee’s line manager may be involved in the process. In some cases this may even be preferable as they will have a much better understanding of any other factors which could be influencing the situation.


When a complaint becomes formal, HR should be involved straight away and should be the people responsible for co-ordinating the action and reaching a fair decision.

The HR team will have the necessary knowledge about the rights of the employee, and the correct process that should be followed, such as formal invitations to a meeting, and the right to have representation. It’s imperative that the employee are made aware of their rights, in order to avoid any claims at a later stage, so HR’s input into the process is essential.

HR should attend the meetings, and record what’s said before reaching a decision about the employee’s complaint.

The goal is always to resolve matters taking into account what’s fair for the individual making the complaint, their colleagues and the company as a whole. For example, an employee may have complained about not being allowed to work from home, but if there are no special circumstances which warrant an exception, the process must consider whether acceding to their request would be fair to their colleagues who might also wish to do the same, and then ultimately whether the company would be able to sustain that.

Where the complaint is about the conduct of another individual, or their manager, HR should consider not just whether the complaint is justified but whether any training is required to prevent a recurrence.


In the early stages, the manager is very much responsible for taking the lead and trying to proactively help the employee to communicate anything they are unhappy about. It may not always be obvious so managers need to be alert for any minor changes in behaviour and performance. If a complaint escalates, the lead should typically be taken by HR who can ensure the right process is followed, and that the outcome is not only fair and unbiased, but can also identify any further training or coaching which needs to take place.

For more information contact us at The HR Booth on 01383 668178 or email us at