Treat ‘Vent Letters’ Like Exit Interviews

Management attorneys disagree about where to file them

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. April 16, 2018
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​During exit interviews, departing employees may say that everything at work was just fine but then turn around and send "vent letters" days or weeks later complaining about a host of ills at the business. HR should consider the contents of such letters the same as grievances communicated during an exit interview, according to Steve Miller, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Chicago.

He said a vent letter might shed light on:

  • Why employees are leaving.
  • What areas of the company need improvement.
  • Issues that are resolvable.
  • Managers' leadership styles and effectiveness.
  • Policies or practices that could be improved.
  • Concerns other employees have but have not articulated.

Why Didn't They Speak Up Earlier?

Authors of vent letters might be more comfortable sharing their thoughts in writing than at an exit interview, Miller said. They may not have decided how to articulate their complaints at the time of the exit interview, he added.

Daniel Schlein, an attorney who is a solo practitioner in New York City, said an employee may opt not to broach concerns during an exit interview because the issues were too recent or unsettling. Or, he said, the worker may fear that by broaching concerns, he or she may be denied benefits after the separation date, such as awards of stock options or bonuses.

Jenn Betts, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Pittsburgh, said she most commonly sees vent letters when the person conducting the exit interview is the target of the employee's complaints.

Miller said that when an employer has received multiple vent letters, it might want to examine if there are problems with the exit interview process, considering:

  • Who within HR or management is present.
  • The timing of the interview.
  • The questions posed.

[SHRM members-only HR form: Exit Interview Questions]

Investigate

Whatever an employee's reason for raising issues only after leaving the organization, HR should pay attention, Schlein said. If venting indicates a pattern of potential problems in the organization's culture or with a particular manager, HR should take a closer look, he noted.

If the vent letter raises legal concerns—whether related to harassment, discrimination or retaliation—HR should start an investigation, said Adam Bartrom, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Failure to respond could jeopardize the company's ability to assert defenses against harassment claims in future litigation and could allow wrongful conduct to go unchecked, observed Michael D. Jones, an attorney with Eckert Seamans in Philadelphia.

Respond?

Jones recommended sending an acknowledgment letter, vetted by legal counsel, to the author of the vent letter.

Don't send anything beyond a simple and cordial reply acknowledging receipt, Miller cautioned. "This response should not promise or suggest that any action will be taken," he said.

Betts said she has been involved in a number of harassment investigations that started with a vent letter. "Since vent letters are often short in length and detail, the first step in conducting a harassment investigation on the basis of such a communication is reaching out to the former employee for an interview," she said. "And the investigation would flow from there."

The interaction with the former employee is "fraught with peril" and should only happen after legal review, Jones cautioned.

Any contact with the ex-employee should be documented in writing to ensure that the company can show it made good-faith efforts to investigate if there is subsequent litigation, Schlein said.

Where Should the Letter Be Filed?

Jones said he would not place a vent letter in the employee's personnel file. Retaining it with legal counsel is one option, he noted. Before discarding a vent letter, determine if it might be needed for any litigation, he added.

The contents of the vent letter may show that the employee had unreasonable grievances.

But Miller said that retaining the vent letter in the former employee's personnel file makes sense. If litigation ensues, "the contents of the vent letter may show or suggest that the employee had unreasonable grievances about his or her employment, made outlandish demands or otherwise lacks credibility," he stated.

Vent Posting

Sometimes former employees post their vent letters on the Internet, rather than sending them to employers.

"It's impossible to monitor all aspects of social media all the time," said Wendy Lane, an attorney with Greenberg Glusker in Los Angeles. There are many different sites where former employees could post their grievances, she noted, and employers shouldn't ignore such postings if they discover them.

Schlein said that to the extent a vent letter raising legal issues is publicly accessible, employers should treat the information like an anonymous tip on a compliance hotline if the author isn't identified. The company should then investigate promptly to the extent it can based on the available information.


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