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INSIGHT

Formal complaints change everything, including your job

By Steve M. Cohen  bio

I am often surprised how managers are still surprised when an employee complaint becomes a major workplace or even a courtroom issue. One manager even complained, “They’re trying to make a federal case out of it!”

Actually, many employee complaints literally are federal cases. And if not federal, they may involve state agencies with strong regulatory authority. Either way, managers need to view almost any employee complaint as something that could cost the practice thousands of dollars, bankrupt the practice or bring its closure.

This includes almost any allegation, whether it’s sexual harassment, bullying or an alleged safety hazard. It doesn’t matter if you doubt the complaint or doubt the complainer. When an allegation occurs, a practice faces potential liability, even enormous liability.

Under many circumstances, the filing of a complaint sets in motion several legal and regulatory requirements for a business or non-profit organization. I sometimes liken the situation to the growing legal requirement for “mandated reporters” in child-abuse cases. Mandated reporters, a legally defined category that includes teachers, doctors or social workers, must report suspected instances of child abuse. If they see it; they must report it. It’s the law.

Business owners and managers are increasingly under similar requirements for workplace allegations. Once an allegation is made, the organization has the legal obligation to conduct a thorough and timely investigation. The alleged victim, the alleged perpetrator, and any potential witnesses must be competently questioned so that management obtains a clear picture of what happened.

The laws also emphasize timeliness. An investigation must begin within 72 hours of management receiving notice. Once management has a clear picture of what happened, then a proper and appropriate response to the facts must be made.

What is an appropriate response? As far as the government is concerned, employers cannot do too much to protect their employees. Various fines and penalties make it clear that the government would just as soon you were out of business if you can’t protect your employees. The organization, to protect both itself and the victim, cannot under-react. If you receive a complaint, you must react, quickly and correctly.

There are also several steps that should be taken to prevent sexual and other forms of harassment within an organization. In fact, an organization can nearly make itself essentially “judgment proof” if it takes the following steps. These are for sexual harassment, but similar policies can be followed for other issues such as racial harassment, bullying, etc.:

  • Establish a sexual harassment prevention policy.
  • Conduct mandatory sexual harassment prevention training for all existing employees.
  • Provide mandatory sexual harassment prevention training for all new employees.
  • Provide permanent reminders of the policy (in the form of a poster, posted on all employee bulletin boards).
  • Provide intermittent reminders of the policy (in the form of a paycheck stuffer) two times per year.

Taking these steps demonstrates to the federal Department of Labor and any state human rights commission that the organization is practicing comprehensive sexual harassment prevention. This demonstrates the company’s seriousness when it comes to providing an environment free of sexual harassment. With these, and proper action following a complaint, your organization is as safe as humanely possible in today’s environment.


Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., CMC is President/Partner of Labor Management Advisory Group, Inc. and HR Solutions: On-Call, both based in Kansas City, MO. For more information, visit www.laborgroup.com or call (913) 927-0229.


The above information is shared by a guest contributor and does not necessarily reflect the views of Medical Office Manager.

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