How Not to Deal With an Employee Complaint


How Not to Deal With an Employee Complaint

I recently discovered the ‘not so joy’ of being taken to Fair Work when an employee complaint was lodged against my business; actually, it was against me personally.

Fortunately, it did not ever proceed to the Fair Work Commission court as we were able to come to an agreement via a three-way conciliatory process.

It was confronting however, stressful and did cost me a sum of money.

I can’t claim ignorance as I had up-to-date policies in place along with appropriate employment contracts, but I did not follow the procedures. The procedures that I, in fact, had put in place and even worse, Fair Work compliance, policies and training were part of the services that my business provided to our clients.

So, what happened? 

I allowed my emotions to get in my way. I felt personally confronted by what this staff member had done. I’m not going to go into the detail of what led up to this but the way I handled it was so wrong. I was upset, incredibly angry and at that point in time I didn’t care – I just wanted to tell it like it was. 

It was after work hours when I had become aware of what had occurred, so I rang the lady in question and challenged her on what she had done. She denied it at first but then on realising she had been caught out started crying and confessed that yes, she, in fact, had done the deed. 

I sacked her on the spot, over the phone. Telling her to go to the office in the morning before I arrived and collect her things. This is not how you dismiss someone, ever.

These particular circumstances did not fall into the category of serious misconduct which meant that I had, in fact, dismissed her unfairly. I had not followed my own procedures.

The only time you can usually dismiss an employee without notice or warning is when you believe, on reasonable grounds, that the employee’s conduct is serious.

This includes theft, fraud, violence and serious breaches of workplace health and safety. It is acceptable although not essential to report the allegation to the police.

What should I have done with this employee complaint?

I should have asked this employee to a meeting with me the next day to discuss the situation. She should have been given the opportunity to explain her reason for doing what she had done.

Then together we could have come to an agreement for the next steps including the chance to rectify the problem and the actions, so this would not occur again.

As the employer, I should have provided her with appropriate training and the opportunity to improve. I should have warned her verbally or preferably in writing that if she then did not improve, she risked dismissal.

What is the role of Fair Work?

Firstly, the Fair Work Ombudsman is an independent statutory office with the jurisdiction set out in the Fair Work Act 2009. Their services are free to all employees and employers in Australia. Their main role is promoting harmonious, productive and co-operative workplace relations and ensuring compliance with Australian workplace laws. They also monitor certain working visa arrangements.

My lessons:

  • Do not let emotions get in my way. 
  • Stop, listen and discuss with someone who is 100 per cent removed from the situation. 
  • Put my phone away and do not make the call but speak face to face.
  • Follow my own procedures which I know are correct and fair for the employee.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are angry like I was, go for a walk or a run, head off to the gym, talk with someone, do something that will calm you down then sleep on it. (unless it is a major and serious incident especially around safety)

Learning how to deal with an employee complaint involves objectivity and a great deal of patience but having skills like this can save you a lot of energy and business resources in the long run. So the next time you have a challenging situation in your business make sure to take the bird’s eye view and approach the case with a commitment to the best outcome for all. 

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