Investigating Complaints Part 1 – Analysing the complaint.

Investigating Complaints Part 1 – Analysing the complaint.

This series is a step by step guide to help you investigate employee complaints.  The guides can also be used to investigate complaints from stakeholders including clients and customers.

This process is by no means the only process, it is however the process I use and have been using successfully for a number of years.

The first step in the investigation process is to analyse the complaint.  Most complaints come via an email or letter and  are often full of emotive language and at times lacking in substance in regard to the exact nature of the incidents complained about, when incidents occurred, what was actually said, how the alleged bullying etc actually manifested and if there were any witnesses present and if so who?

Complaints are full of information but not necessarily evidence.

It has been said that all evidence is information, but not all information is evidence. Evidence is what is needed to make findings and to base your recommendations on.

Evidence can be defined as;

1. That which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief; proof.
2. Something that makes plain or clear; an indication or sign
3. At Law, data presented to a court or jury in proof of the facts in issue and which may include the testimony of witnesses, records, documents, or objects.

For a workplace investigator, evidence is what you must rely upon to substantiate or otherwise an allegation.

My process to analysis a complaint is to;
1. Print out the complaint.
2. Use a highlighter to high lite anything I want/need to clarify with the complainant when I interview then.
3. Place a number beside what I want clarified, this is useful when drafting your interview plan ( I will discuss interview plans in a later article).

What gets highlighted?

1. Any word, statement or comment that requires a who, what, where, when, why or how question to clarify.
2. Any term that had a subjective meaning such as bullied,  harassed, intimidated, belittled etc (how, when, where, what does it mean to the complainant)
3. Any term that requires a definitive scale (yelled – how loud)
4. Any term that is a verb in nature (acted aggressively toward me – how, where, when)
5. Any indication that there may have been a witness present (who, when, where)
6. Any statement that indicates how the victim was feeling at the time (details, how, why)
7. Any conversation or words used by the complainant or the person subject of the complaint (what – actual words used, when, tone, volume)
8. Any other physical actions (what, when, why)
9. Anything that does not appear to make sense or is contradictory.
10. Anything that indicates a specific time or time frame (time, date)

This list is by no means everything that I would high lite but it is my top ten. What is actually highlighted depends on the complaint.

When I am analysing a complaint, if it lengthy I will print out a second copy with lines, sentences or paragraphs numbered. This can help during the interview if I want to draw the complainants attention to a specific part of their complaint.  I will deal with this in more detail in later articles.

It is important that when you are analysing a complaint you get a specific understanding of what the complainant said and meant to say and meant by what they said. For example, I reviewed a bullying complainant in which the complaint stated that amongst other things he had been subjected to ‘blackmail’ and ‘extortion’. I highlighted both of these comments and in my interview plan where I noted that more details were required (how, when, where, who by).

When I interviewed the complainant he told me that the ‘blackmail’ and ‘extortion’ related to him being invited to a number of performance related meetings.  In his mind being invited to the meetings was extortion and he was being blackmailed out of his job.  The outcome of the investigation was that he was a very poor performer, he had been subject to performance management that I found to be reasonable management action under the circumstances and his bullying complainant was unsubstantiated.

On a side note interviewing managers who have had bullying complaints made against them as a result of the complainant being placed on some sort of performance management requires a detailed understanding of Reasonable Management Action. 

The lesson here is to leave no stone unturned or no question unanswered. Never assume what a complainant meant.  This is extremely important when it comes to drafting allegations for the respondent to answer. If for example a complainant used the word ‘threatened’  when in fact there was no actual threat and it was a case of being belittled and you accept the ‘threatened’ comment without getting more details as in the how you will very likely have a problem when the respondent denies the allegation and you don’t actually have the evidence to support the allegation.

Remember the complaint is information, it becomes evidence when you gather the information to support or otherwise something that is issue.  You must be able to support your allegation with evidence is you are going to substantiate it.  It is also very important NOT to read into the complaint with your personal views or opinions.

Need help – it is vitally important to get it right the first time every time.

Call an expert or do it yourself?

We can provide full investigation services –

Complaint analysis is a skill that we cover in our workplace investigation training courses, contact us for details –
If you are unsure about Reasonable Management Action or Evidence, we have manual available on our web site -

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