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No matter how harmonious your workplace seems, at some point, an employee will seek help in resolving a grievance. Your initial response determines how the issue is resolved, so it's important to respond promptly and gather all relevant facts. Ideally, an aggrieved employee should leave his initial meeting with a clear understanding of how the company will respond and what steps it will take to prevent the issue from resurfacing.
Agree on the Details
Arriving at agreement on the details of an employee's complaint is an important first step. Separating facts from opinions should be the manager's priority in any meeting. Only then can the supervisor know how to resolve the issue. If necessary, restate the employee's description of the issue in your own words. Ask whether your understanding is correct. If the employee agrees it is, thank him for sharing his concerns.
All too often, employees complain that the managers who heard their initial complaints appeared sympathetic but didn't take them seriously. If you can't talk immediately, offer to meet the employee within 24 hours. If a different manager's authority is required, assist the employee by calling that person to set up a meeting and confirm that the meeting occurs.
Focus on Specifics
Learning the exact nature of an employee's grievance is one of the trickiest but most critical parts of a complaint investigation. For misconduct allegations involving more than one employee, the manager needs to ask multiple questions to establish the facts. If an employee seems vague, probe for the "who, what, when, where and why" of each incident. Advise him that his problem is harder to resolve without those details.
Listen and Respond
Listen actively as an employee talks but avoid premature judgments or second-guessing what he says until you hear all the facts. Take notes, so you're not relying on memory and don't be afraid to ask follow-up questions to clarify unclear points. Remind the employee that you'll keep his complaint as confidential as possible, but let him know that you're obligated to involve others.
Settle on a Solution
Sometimes, the employee's description suggests a solution. At other times, additional detailed fact-finding is required, such as checking company policies or prior contract language. Describe any proposed actions in clear, simple terms. However, before committing to a solution, explain to the employee what you can or cannot do. Otherwise, you risk aggravating the situation by promising something you can't deliver.
Schedule Follow-Up Meetings
When addressing employee complaints, managers should take the same approach they use to satisfy an unhappy customer, suggests consultant John Treace. Writing for the Inc. website, Treace recommends scheduling a meeting to explain the steps you've taken, as well as how you'll prevent the situation from happening again. Thank the employee for raising the issue and ask him to advise you if any problems resurface.
Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.