Dealing with Diversity Complaints as an Organization

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An organization must take specific actions once a complaint has been filed. All complaints must be taken seriously and dealt with in a professional manner. As a company you should be prepared with documentation, policies, and procedure to follow if a complaint is ever made. We will look at the processes involved if ever a complaint is put forth.

Receiving a Complaint

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If your organization has a formal complaint form and the complaint consists of notes, transcribe them to the complaint form to make sure the information is complete.

  • Treat the person with respect and compassion
  • Do not blame or retaliate against the complainer
  • Follow documented policies and established procedures.

Weighing the need for an Investigation

Based on the severity of the complaint, whether there is disagreement about the incident, and how any similar complaints were handled in the past, decide whether an investigation is warranted. If the issue is simple and straightforward, or easily resolvable, a full investigation may not be warranted. But if the charge is serious — or you sense there are other factors below the surface at play, an investigation is in order. You can identify one or more company employees to conduct the investigation, use a licensed investigation professional, or retain an attorney to conduct the investigation.

A company investigator should have some prior experience along with the ability to remain impartial and discreet. He or she should have higher ranking, if possible, than the complainant. Certain situations merit the use of an outside investigator. They include:

  • Your organization does not have an individual qualified to conduct the investigation
  • The complaint involves widespread discrimination
  • The person accused  of the infraction is a high-level employee
  • A company practice or policy is challenged as having a negative impact on a particular group
  • The complaint has been publicized in the community, on radio, TV or the internet
  • The complainant has hired an attorney, filed charges with the EEOC or other state or federal agency, or filed a lawsuit.

Conduct an Investigation

You will want find out who complained, why, who is being accused of discrimination, whether any witnesses have been named, and what potential employment decision is being questioned. Follow the process below.

  1. Map out the investigation. Ask some open-ended questions to set the stage; what do you need to find out? Who might have important information? How best to obtain it?
  2. Assemble documents and other evidence. Collect relevant email messages, employee files, performance reviews, attendance records, the work history of the complainant and the accused, and any other documentation you feel will be helpful. Include copies of company policies.
  3. Plan and conduct interviews.  You will interview the complainant, the person or persons accused of discrimination, and any witnesses. Explain the investigation process, the fact that confidentiality will be respected, that reprisal (retaliation) is prohibited, and that there will be opportunity for questions or concerns. Take careful notes.  If you plan to tape the interviews, make absolutely certain that you have received written consent forms from all involved persons. Note that a union member has a right to bring a representative to the interview if requested. When you interview an accused person or witnesses, take care not to divulge any unnecessary information.
  4. Review and evaluate the evidence. Examine the facts and assess plausibility and credibility. Do witness reports support the complaint? Try to draw conclusions. Note: You may need a second opinion to validate their soundness. Determine whether misconduct occurred.  The three most probable outcomes are that misconduct occurred, did not occur, or it cannot be determined whether misconduct occurred.

Choosing a Response

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Take Action

If you find that discrimination occurred, take corrective action. You want to a) end the discrimination and b) remedy the victim’s situation(s). Carefully evaluate the circumstances and consider corrective actions. The punitive actions should correspond to the level or severity of the infraction(s). And even if a solid conclusion cannot be made, preventive actions can be taken. 

Either way, options include:

  • Warnings to avoid the offending conduct in the future
  • Training or educational programs, individually, as a group, or company-wide
  • Verbal counseling or warnings
  • Suspension
  • A corrective action plan or probationary period
  • Deferral of a performance review date
  • Demotion
  • Transfer of the offending employee
  • Reduction in salary or salary freeze
  • Termination with cause.

Document the Investigation

Keep all notes and documentation of the findings. Write a short formal report explaining the decision along with the reasons. Keep a copy in the company’s confidential files; it should never go into an employee’s personnel file.

Follow Up

Contact the complainant on occasion to make sure that problem has stopped, that there has been no retaliation, and that the employee feels safe and comfortable. At your discretion, you may also wish to contact the accused employee as well to make sure things have returned to normal.

Learning from the Complaint

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Regardless of the outcome of the complaint, if you found ethnic, racial, gender or disability practices, now is the time to make things better. Below are some actions your organization should consider taking.

  • Write or enhance your affirmative action and discrimination policies and procedures. Make them available through multiple outlets such as the employee handbook, bulletin boards, and the company intranet
  • Train one or more qualified employees in your company to conduct complaint investigations.
  • Add a page about the company’s diversity programs to your company web site, if one doesn’t exist.
  • Institute new diversity training programs or new program modules.
  • Raise your management training bar so that managers and supervisors understand how to handle discrimination claims efficiently and effectively.
  • Examine and modify promotion and hiring practices to make sure they are air-tight with respect to protected classes in hiring and promotion.

Module Eleven: Case Study

Johanna felt like her stomach was in knots, after making a complaint about a co-worker. She had thought about trying to resolve the situation herself, but she was too worried about retaliation from her co-worker.

Her manager, Carlos, followed all policies and procedures of the company by the book. He noticed that she was frowning and seemed distracted. “Johanna, you still look worried. Is there anything else you want to say?”

Johanna said, “Do you think there will be a full investigation? Will this be handled quickly? Or will it take a long time?”

Carlos said, “These matters can take time to resolve. However, sometimes complaints don’t need a full investigation, if they can be easily resolved. I’ll take this matter to human resources, and we’ll go from there.”

Johanna felt better, knowing that her complaint was being taken seriously and that her manager had been honest with her.