Train Supervisors to Be Great Listeners When Employees Complain

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. June 18, 2017

Supervisors should put everything on hold and take the time to really listen to employees who have worked up the nerve to come forward with complaints, said Glen Kraemer, an attorney with Hirschfeld Kraemer in Santa Monica, Calif.

Managers should be trained to put off other obligations and be all ears for complainants who step forward. Managers shouldn't say they have to rush off to a meeting or say they will get back in touch with employees first thing the following day, he said Sunday at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition.

Key Questions

Kraemer said that the best question managers can ask is, "What happened?" Follow up with:

  • When did it happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • How did it make the employee feel?
  • Who was there? What did they see? What did the employee say to any witnesses?
  • Has it happened before? When? What? Where?
  • Who has the employee talked about this to? What did the employee say?
  • Are there any written documents relevant to the issue that the employee knows about?
  • Has the employee kept any written records or diaries that are relevant to the issue? Are there any relevant expense reports, personnel file memos or other notes?
  • Who has similar concerns? What are those concerns?
  • Are there any other issues this employee wants to discuss?
  • What other information or facts may be important for the manager to know?

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: How should an HR professional proceed if a senior executive is accused of harassment or discrimination?]

Kim Ianiro, SHRM-SCP, vice president of HR with Wingate Health Care in Needham, Mass., and a conference attendee, agreed that supervisors need to do a "deeper dive" when taking employee statements about a complaint. It's important to get the details in a health care setting, where the allegations can be false, she noted, particularly in nursing homes where some of the residents have dementia.

Don't leave initial intake of employees' information or investigations to lawyers, Kraemer cautioned. "Lawyers mess up investigations," he said. Attorneys are trained to be zealous advocates and to take sides. Investigations instead should be led by impartial finders of fact, he noted.

Purpose of Intake

Managers conducting the initial intake should be aware of the purposes and objectives of the meeting:

  • Identify all issues.
  • Gather all material facts.
  • Determine if a formal or informal investigation is needed.
  • Instill confidence in the investigation system.

If an assault was reported, the supervisor should ascertain whether a criminal issue or workplace violence is being alleged and whether paid leave for the accused may be necessary, Kraemer said. While managers will be gathering as much information as possible at the initial intake, they won't separate the wheat from the chaff at this stage, he noted.

Handoff to HR

After the supervisor builds rapport at the initial intake, he or she will inform the worker about the handoff to HR and walk him or her to HR. If the worker approaches a manager first, he or she may have been afraid initially to go to HR for fear of retaliation, so it's important that managers first make sure the employee trusts in the investigation process.

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The HR department needs to build the employees' confidence in the HR professional as well as the investigator. Kraemer said HR practitioners should be direct and ask, "Do you feel I can be fair and impartial in conducting this investigation?"

Be prepared, though, because the answer might be "no." Kraemer said that, for example, a woman with a sexual harassment complaint might say to a male HR professional, "To tell you the truth, I don't feel that you are the right person to handle this issue. Only a woman can understand the kind of discrimination people like me face every day of the week."

Bringing in a third-party investigator might be advisable at this point, he noted, but not necessarily. The HR professional might respond, "The most important thing is for the person who is trained to do investigations [to be the one to] conduct the investigations." If HR is able to instill trust in its process, its investigation can then proceed.

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