Handling An Employee Compliant

Q: Where I work, we do not have an HR Manager, so I am the “HR Department” (business owner, office manager, etc.). I had a complaint about an employee who works at the company, and I have never investigated a sexual harassment incident before. I have the complainant’s statement, but I have not spoken to the subject of complaint(s). I don’t really know how to handle this and what I need to do next. Any help would be appreciated!!

A: First off, take a deep breath! We know these are tough situations to handle and manage. We understand that conducting internal investigations, especially when you’re not directly responsible for “all things HR” can be challenging. For the purposes of this Q&A, you will be referred to as the “HR Administrator”. Therefore, here is some guidance to help you navigate a complaint of sexual harassment in an effective and timely manner:

The initial step is crucial: Ensure the complainant’s statement is acknowledged by letting them know the allegation will be kept confidential and taken seriously. In your role as an HR Administrator, gather as much information as possible from the complainant by meeting with them to discuss the written or verbal complaint. This includes the details of the incident(s), dates, times, locations, and any potential witnesses. Cover the five (5) W’s and the H which means create questions that cover the: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.

Your next step is to inform your immediate supervisor, higher management, or general counsel about the complaint. This is especially important since you are the “de facto HR Administrator”. Transparency and collaboration with management will ensure the process proceeds appropriately. At this time, we would suggest you determine if you are the best person to manage this investigation. Consult with an HR professional or employment attorney, as needed. Ensure that the process will be conducted professionally and free from any preconceived judgments. This underscores the importance of involving a third party. You will want to minimize any perception of a conflict of interest by taking lead in the investigation if there is a bias.

Following the meeting with the complainant and informing those who need to know about the actual complaint, the next step is to meet with the employee who is the subject of the complaints. Again, this meeting should be face to face (in-person or virtual). Be sure to prepare your questions in advance to structure your interview with the subject. Ensure confidentiality, no retaliation, and that your questions are unbiased. It’s essential to conduct a fair and impartial investigation. Structure your questions to allow them to provide their side of the story and gather any relevant evidence they might have to tell you at this time. If there are any witnesses mentioned, follow up with them and capture their details. Document every interaction and piece of evidence meticulously. At all times reminding and assuring people of privacy, confidentiality, and no retaliation.

It is important to remain neutral during the entire process and at the same time be supportive of both parties throughout the process. This is done by maintaining open lines of communication with both the complainant and the subject of complaints. Let them know that their concerns and well-being are a priority. Offer resources such as counseling or support groups as needed. Equally as important is ensuring the safety of each person involved, be sure to review their comfort level to continue working together, if required. This might include talking through options with an experienced HR professional consultant or employment attorney.

After you have gathered all your facts and details, if you are unsure about how to proceed next with the investigation, do not hesitate to seek guidance. If there are any questions or concerns with the facts collected, consult with an employment attorney or an experienced HR professional consultant. Remaining neutral and unbiased is paramount to evaluating the facts and determining the outcome and conclusion.

Once the investigation is finalized, compile a comprehensive report with your findings, evidence, and conclusions. Management can then decide on the appropriate action if any will be required.  However, final determinations may be case-by-case and the result may involve disciplinary measures or other necessary steps. At this juncture, you may decide to seek out an experienced HR professional consultant or employment attorney to review the findings, solutions, and recommendations before concluding. Then you need to communicate to both the complainant and the subject of complaints to reflect the investigation is complete.

In many cases, additional findings may include coaching, updating employee handbooks, and/or training on conducting investigations for yourself or someone else within the organization to ensure better management of situations that arise in the future. HR Answers is offering a session on Tuesday, November 28. Register Here.

Remember that conducting internal investigations is challenging and creates discomfort within the organization, however, equally invaluable to your business is managing them successfully. Seek guidance when unsure, maintain professionalism, and ensure fairness to all parties involved. Your commitment to handling these situations conscientiously is vital in creating a safe and respectful workplace as well as mitigating risk.

Handling Negative Co-Workers

Question:

With one exception, everything about my job is terrific. I work for an upscale hotel which is preparing me for a career in hospitality management. My boss is a great mentor, and most of my colleagues are upbeat and enthusiastic. However, one of them is a real mood-killer. Brittany starts complaining as soon as she walks through the door. Our manager is her primary target, but she makes disparaging comments about everyone, including coworkers and customers. She also loves to gossip and enjoys telling malicious stories about certain staff members. Brittany doesn’t seem to care that hotel guests can often hear her negative remarks. Although I
would like to correct this unprofessional behavior, that might put me on her “enemies list”. If I mention this to my boss, I’m afraid I’ll sound like a tattletale. My co-worker is a real downer. With all this constant complaining and speaking ill of other employees and I am not sure how to handle this individual in the best most professional and appropriate way. What should I do?

Answer:

Since Brittany’s compulsive griping is affecting both employees and guests, someone certainly needs to address it. It is always a good idea to try and work with the fellow employee to resolve the concern first before involving a supervisor. To keep this on a peer level, team up with some other colleagues and arrange to have a private conversation with Brittany (caution that it does not present as being ganged up on). A group discussion will have greater impact and
minimize the possibility of retribution. For example: “Brittany, we wanted to talk with you because it appears you are not happy working here. We are sorry about that and would encourage you to talk with the supervisor. Listening to you complain has become rather uncomfortable for us. We’re also concerned that customers
who overhear your comments are getting a bad impression of the hotel. So, from now on, we wanted you to know we are not going to participate in any more gripe sessions.” If that approach doesn’t seem feasible, the business implications provide a perfectly valid reason for involving your boss in this concern. Be sure to focus on the work issues and impact on morale, not Brittany’s disagreeable behavior. Explain that her public complaints may be giving guests the wrong impression, so you thought your manager should become aware of the situation. To stay off the enemy list, request that your comments be kept confidential please.

What is Job Abandonment?

Question:

What is job abandonment, and how is it typically defined with employers?

Answer:

Job abandonment refers to a situation where an employee fails to show up for work according to their scheduled shift and demonstrates no intention of returning to the job. Importantly, the employee does not communicate their intention to quit to the employer. This absence disrupts work operations and can create challenges for employers.

Question:

How can employers address and manage instances of job abandonment?

Answer:

Employers are advised to establish a clear policy that outlines the criteria for identifying job abandonment. While no federal law specifies the exact number of days, many states rely on case law or guidance from state unemployment agencies to define a reasonable time frame. Commonly, three to five full business days are considered reasonable. This period allows employers sufficient time to investigate the absence without unnecessarily holding a position open.

Question: 

Are all instances of no-call/no-show absences automatically considered cases of job abandonment?

Answer:

Employers should exercise caution and not automatically assume that every instance of a no-call/no-show absence constitutes job abandonment. Sometimes, employees may face extenuating circumstances such as medical emergencies, incarceration, or personal crises that prevent them from communicating with their employer. Therefore, it’s important for employers to establish investigation procedures. These procedures could involve attempts to contact the absent employee and sending a termination letter that explains the employer’s position while inviting the employee to provide context or information that could potentially alter the employer’s decision.

Recovering Property from Remote Employees

Question:

What happens when a remote employee resigns or is terminated?

Answer:

When a remote employee quits without notice or is fired, the difficult task of retrieving the worker’s laptop and other company equipment often falls to the HR team.
HR professionals might be tempted to withhold the employee’s last paycheck until the property is returned, but state laws forbid this. Some state wage-deduction laws also prohibit HR from pulling the value of the items out of the departing employee’s final pay, even if the worker were to somehow give written consent.
However, here are some actions HR professionals can take as they attempt to retrieve company equipment:
Put the terms in writing. Have employees sign an acknowledgment when they are issued any new company property. The acknowledgment should explain that the employee is responsible for returning the items when employment ends. This document can support an employer’s position if it becomes necessary to file a legal claim to recover the equipment. It can also remind employees that they should care for the property that belongs to the employer.
Ask to meet in person. If a termination meeting is necessary, ask the employee to come into the office and to bring any company-issued equipment. In some cases, managers will ask to meet with employees in the field. Some employers tell employees to bring the equipment because updates are needed; this is a dishonest tactic and should not be used.
Initiate recovery steps. If an employee refuses to meet in person, HR will need to begin a process to recover the equipment.
Send the individual a letter or e-mail showing the list of items that need to be returned. Include a copy of the acknowledgment form that was signed when the employee received the equipment, if such a form exists. Also, provide a prepaid shipping label, along with instructions on how to schedule pickup, in the event the person prefers not to deliver the items in person.
If two weeks pass and the individual has not taken action, then send a follow-up letter or e-mail stressing the importance of returning the property. The letter may mention what happens if the individual fails to do so.
If no response is received in 30 days, send another letter or e-mail informing the former employee that the organization will exercise its rights under the law for a criminal charge of theft, a civil action seeking the value of the items or both. Then, after seeking legal advice, determine whether to proceed with a claim after weighing the cost of the unrecovered items against the cost of legal action.
HR professionals may also want to consider how it might affect morale among the remaining employees if the organization takes legal action against a former employee.