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Jun 8, 2021

If you’ve ever witnessed or been on the receiving end of workplace misconduct, you know firsthand just how difficult it is to put your experience into words and share with others. You may have felt embarrassment and fear of retaliation, or maybe you didn’t know which issues require attention and which to brush off.

Many employees go through this and feel uneasy addressing any misconduct they experience — and while HR and employee relations (ER) professionals are the ones who typically handle complaints, the majority of workers direct their initial complaints to their manager. Which makes sense given that most employees do not have the same regular contact with their HR colleagues as they do with their managers.

However, about a third of managers say they’re not fully prepared to handle misconduct claims, and too many incidents ultimately go unreported to HR. One major problem with this is that a mishandled misconduct claim can cost companies millions of dollars and damage a brand’s reputation. Additionally, mishandled claims can hinder developing a productive, fair, and safe workplace. 

And so sure, ER professionals have the training and experience to handle misconduct complaints, understanding the ins-and-outs of effectively investigating and resolving claims. But this expertise isn’t helpful if complaints never make it to them and instead stay with ill-equipped managers.

That’s why the only way to create an environment free of harassment and discrimination is for ER professionals to partner with managers. Specifically, ER must empower managers through detailed training and communication that addresses the organization’s policies, expectations, and processes for handling misconduct.

Understanding Complaints

Experienced ER professionals understand the nuances between basic workplace misconduct —  such as tardiness, inappropriate clothing or language, and minor policy infractions — versus conduct that could be cause for termination, like harassment, bullying, violence, and fraud. It’s also important that they pass this knowledge on to managers to set them up for success and ensure they too can identify differences, especially between misconduct claims they can address and others that they should escalate to ER. 

It’s not enough simply to share these policies once and hope they are understood. It’s up to ER to work directly with managers to clarify their role in addressing misconduct and help them understand their responsibilities. Here are three key responsibilities managers have when a workplace misconduct issue comes to light:

  1. Address the issue quickly. Managers will instill confidence in the organization’s ability to navigate complaints by addressing an issue with all employees involved as soon as possible once misconduct is alleged. While managers aren’t trained investigators like ER professionals, they should be expected to lead, provide support, and help to determine next steps. Showing urgency when addressing complaints will build on the trust the reporting employee had when presenting the issue to their manager.
  2. Listen, learn, and counsel. Managers will gain a better understanding about the complaint by asking the right questions and by listening carefully to employee responses. Notably, this also entails asking questions to identify and address any gaps in the employee’s understanding of expectations around policies and awareness of boundaries for acceptable behaviors. Having a manager who is actively listening and offering clear next steps can make the difference between an employee feeling supported and dismissed. 
  3. Document and escalate as appropriate. Managers must also explain possible consequences that may result from the behavior and document the conversation, noting which policies were discussed. It’s important to communicate next steps and escalate allegations of serious misconduct — like harassment, discrimination, and threats — to ER to ensure no complaint falls through the cracks. Afterward, managers should continue to check in with employees to provide support and communicate what to expect next.

The HR Acuity Employee Experience Survey shed light on other aspects of how misconduct is handled, including the role gender may play. Findings showed that issues raised by men are 26% more likely to be investigated. Furthermore, nearly 40% of all employees lack confidence that their issues will be addressed fairly, and only about half said that reported issues were investigated.

Here’s yet another finding that should cause concern: When reported issues are not investigated, 41% of employees are less likely to recommend HR to peers or colleagues with similar issues, and 64% will leave the organization. 

Point is, ER can make a real difference and ensure employees feel confident reporting issues by providing training and communicating with managers frequently about correctly handling misconduct allegations. 

It Takes Teamwork to Create a Safer Workplace

Creating a safer workplace is everyone’s responsibility, but managers and ER professionals are often the ones closest to employees. That’s why teamwork is so important. It’s imperative that everyone understands the process and their role in addressing misconduct claims. 

The good news from the Employee Experience Survey is that 70% of issues were resolved when an investigation was completed, and nearly half of employees stayed at the company following an investigated incident. With a thorough and consistent process, companies can improve employee perceptions of fairness and reduce costly turnover. 

By clarifying the process, opening lines of communication, and deploying tools to strengthen collaboration between managers and the ER team, all companies can create a safer workplace for employees. Ultimately, no complaints go unheard. 

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