Employee complaints about the conduct of another employee are not something employers can ignore.

In fact, there are a host of laws—Title VII, Americans with Disabilities Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, state and local nondiscrimination laws—that obligate employers to investigate such complaints in a timely manner.

Here are seven steps every employer should follow when investigating employee complaints:

  • When one coworker or an outside party makes a complaint against another coworker for acts of misconduct or violations of company policy, or when it is reported to a manager or a manager otherwise learns that an employee may have engaged in misconduct or violation of company policy, an investigation must be conducted into each complaint by the manager (with the assistance of the higher-level manager and/or Human Resources) prior to determining further action (such as imposing any discipline). 
  • Typically, any investigation will require obtaining signed written statements by the complaining party and any witnesses as to who, what, where, when, and why.
  • Typically, the manager responsible for the investigation should not settle for general or conclusory answers; be sure to get the full picture.  
  • The manager responsible for the investigation should provide the higher-level manager and/or Human Resources with a statement as to how the manager became aware of the incident and what was done to investigate—just stick to the facts!
  • Send all information from the investigation to the higher-level manager and/or Human Resources for review before addressing the incident with the employee accused of wrongdoing.
  • Depending on the nature of the incident, and only after consultation with the higher-level manager and/or Human Resources (and outside counsel when necessary) a determination needs to be made as to whether, when and in what format (in-person or in-writing) the employee accused of wrongdoing will be asked to respond and what information will be shared with the employee.  
  • For complaints of serious or significant acts of misconduct or violations of company policy, an employee accused of wrongdoing may be suspended immediately pending the outcome of the investigation and/or after the incident has been addressed with them.  Suspension may be with pay or without pay (depending on circumstances and applicable law).  

Remember—protect the confidentiality of any employee claims to the greatest extent possible.

It's important to consider interim protection for the accuser or alleged victim to avoid harassment or retaliatory acts by the accused.

Also, remember—protect the confidentiality of any employee claims to the greatest extent possible.

Finally, if you have any doubts about how to handle an investigation or punish employees guilty of misconduct, contact a well-trained employment and labor law attorney for guidance.

Doing so can save your company great expense in the long run.


About the author: Fred Dorsey is a partner at the labor and employment law firm of Kainen, Escalera & McHale in Hartford.