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Here are a few tips to help you properly respond to anonymous complaints.
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Picture this: You walk into the office on a typical weekday morning. You chat briefly with your coworkers, fire up your computer, and sit down at your desk—only to receive a complaint about one of your employees from an anonymous source.
What Should You Do?
The best course of action is to investigate all complaints or reports of noncompliance, even those reported anonymously. Here are a few tips to help you properly respond to anonymous tips.
Who Should Respond to Anonymous Complaints?
When you receive an anonymous complaint, the first thing you need to do is determine the severity of the situation. Is this a matter that needs urgent attention? Should the police be involved? If so, call the proper authorities immediately.
However, if the complaint is a matter you can resolve within your organization, it’s time to call HR. You don’t want to involve every employee in this process. Nonetheless, it’s wise to speak with senior staff and the HR department. You should also talk with compliance officers and the head of any department named in the complaint.
Here’s What to Do About Anonymous Complaints
Address the Complaint Immediately
It can be tempting to ignore an anonymous complaint, particularly if the complaint is vague. However, this would be a big mistake. If you ignore an anonymous complaint or hesitate to begin investigating, you risk losing key information and evidence that could expose wrongdoing.
Additionally, ignoring employee complaints demonstrates to your workers that ethics in business is not a company value. This can severely affect morale in the workplace. Moreover, it can hurt your chances of attracting top talent in the future. If your business values ethics and compliance, it should respond to all employee complaints within two weeks—sooner for complaints of harassment or safety concerns.
Determine If an Investigation Is Warranted
While you must respond to every employee complaint, whether anonymous or not, it’s important to remember that not every response warrants an investigation. For example, personality clashes between employees or between managers and their teams don’t require an investigation.
So, when would you investigate a complaint? You should investigate any complaint that involves harassment, illegal activity, employee misconduct, or other forms of noncompliance.
Focus on Gathering the Facts About the Anonymous Complaint
One of the most difficult things about anonymous complaints (and part of the reason so many companies would rather ignore them) is that they are very difficult to confirm. When a complaint is anonymous, you can’t interview the accuser and find out what evidence they have for their complaint. And if the complaint is especially vague, you may not even know who is being accused.
However, it is still very important to do your best and gather as much information as possible. Focus on the alleged behavior in the complaint, and consider hiring a workplace investigator to help you.
Interview Those You Know Were Involved
If the anonymous complaint names a certain department or specific employees, it’s best to start your investigation with those individuals. This can help you gain a better understanding of the allegations. It may even help you uncover other instances of noncompliance.
Keep Everything About Anonymous Complaints Confidential
Confidentiality is key when dealing with noncompliance investigations. If you share information about the complaint, you risk others spreading the word and compromising your investigation. Try to keep any information you find on a strictly need-to-know basis.
Here’s What Not to Do
Receiving an anonymous complaint is undoubtedly an unpleasant surprise. It can be easy to jump into panic mode, wondering how you’re going to get to the bottom of this situation. Try to avoid this impulse. A calm and measured approach will always lead to a more thorough investigation.
Remember, all you can do is try your best to unearth the truth behind this complaint. If you take your time and work carefully, rather than rushing through the process in a panic, you will be more likely to find a solution that benefits your employees and your company as a whole.
Don’t Jump to Conclusions
You’ve probably heard the phrase “innocent until proven guilty.” That philosophy should apply to all employee complaints, whether or not they are anonymous. If you take every complaint as fact and rush to punish every accused person, there is a chance that you will mete out consequences to the wrong people.
Even if you do manage to respond justly every time, jumping to conclusions can make your work environment extremely tense. Therefore, it’s always best to treat employee complaints as mere allegations. Then let your investigation determine the appropriate response.
Don’t Make Any Assumptions About an Anonymous Complaint
In the same way that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the accused, you also shouldn’t dismiss employees’ complaints as unimportant or untrue. Making assumptions about the anonymous tipster may lead to biases in your investigation. And that can spell real trouble for your workplace.
Do Not Retaliate or Tolerate Anyone Who Does
One of the main reasons people choose not to come forward when they witness or experience noncompliance is the fear of retaliation. They worry that complaining will hurt their chances for a promotion or simply make their working experience more difficult.
If you want your business to be compliance- and ethics-focused, you cannot let this happen.
You cannot tolerate retaliation for employees who speak out about misconduct or noncompliance. Make sure this is clear throughout your organization by making your zero-tolerance policy known in employee training. Set up an anonymous reporting hotline through a third party to encourage people to speak up. And if you see someone taking retaliatory action against their coworker, take appropriate action to stop them.
Do Not Discuss the Matter with Anyone
We mentioned earlier that you need to keep things confidential, but it bears repeating. There is no reason for individuals unrelated to your investigation to know anything about it.
If a noncompliance investigation becomes office water cooler gossip, it will be next to impossible to retain anonymity for the accuser. This can lead to retaliation (and more fires for you to put out). Moreover, it will ultimately keep workers from speaking up. This can be disastrous for your company, so don’t let anyone related to your investigation say too much.
Anonymous complaints can be a real challenge for any organization. But if you take your time, do your due diligence, and dole out the appropriate consequences, these complaints can help you build a better organization with a strong and ethical culture.
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About the Author
Giovanni Gallo is the co-CEO of ComplianceLine. He and his team strive to make the world a better workplace with compliance hotline services, sanction, and license monitoring. They also provide workforce eLearning software and services.
Growing up as the son of a Cuban refugee in an entrepreneurial family taught Gio how deep care for employees can make a thriving business a platform for positive change in the world. He built on that experience through his work with startups and multinational organizations. Today, ComplianceLine’s solutions empower caring leaders to build strong cultures for the betterment of every employee and their community.
When he’s not working, Gio is wrangling his four young kids, riding his motorcycle, and supporting education, families, and the homeless in the Charlotte community.
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