When an employee makes an informal or seemingly trivial complaint about a colleague’s behaviour, is it always necessary to conduct a full workplace investigation?

Employers often have to make tough decisions about following up on employee complaints, particularly when HR staff are time-poor or when the substance of the complaint seems unimportant or investigating might seem impractical.

A post on the HR Daily Community blog cites a recent case heard in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal of Australia (AATA), which clearly shows how important it is for employers to take action on complaints. It is also apparent from this case that those receiving complaints should resist the temptation to make quick judgements about a complaint’s veracity or seriousness, without proper evidence.

In this case, an employee had complained of bullying behaviour to several people within the organisation, including managers and the Human Resources department. However, her complaints were not followed up, which later resulted in psychological injury.

The AATA’s Deputy President Handley noted:

Nobody appears to have taken responsibility at the appropriate time for assisting an employee who was showing clear signs of distress. Action was taken by [the employer] to address the problem subsequently but by that stage the damage had been done. I note the expert witnesses commented on the poor workplace handling of her situation.

I am satisfied that while asking an employee to return to their substantive position at the end of a temporary secondment would ordinarily be reasonable administrative action, in this case it was not reasonable given the past history and the likely reaction of [the applicant], of which the employer was on notice.

Although not every complaint will result in a workplace investigation, as other approaches such as facilitated discussions or workplace mediation may resolve the issue, doing nothing is not an option.

Employers who fail to fulfil their duty of care and provide a safe workplace may become liable for breaching the Work Health and Safety Act. Additionally, refusing to acknowledge an employee’s complaint shows a lack of respect and compassion and can result in a culture of fear and unhappiness.

In extreme cases, ignored complaints could escalate into ongoing workplace bullying and harassment, leading to workers’ compensation claims or applications to the Fair Work Commission.

The choice to do nothing when complaints are made is typically the result of employers and managers applying their own knowledge or opinion of the situation. This is dangerous as managers can misinterpret events due to a lack of first-hand experience and biased decisions do not afford procedural fairness to those involved.

Employee complaints should be treated equally and fairly under the organisation’s workplace harassment and bullying policies and procedures. Employers should also ensure anyone investigating a complaint is appropriately trained to do so.

iHR Australia conducts workplace inquiries, investigations and mediation. Our highly skilled investigators undertake all activities with confidentiality, sensitivity and integrity.

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