How to handle anonymous complaints

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Rey Elbo

In The Workplace

We’ve been receiving many employee complaints against the management style of some line supervisors and managers. The trouble is that these grievances are passed on anonymously using the company’s suggestion boxes, which were installed to solicit ideas and not complaints. Are we missing something here? How do we manage those issues after all? — Quantum Losses.

Somebody defined communication as follows: “It is any modus operandi by or through which evaluates the reciprocal transposition of information between or among entities or groups via commonly understood systems of symbols, signs, or behavioral patterns of activity.”

This definition, no matter how academically correct it may be, defeats the letter and spirit of “communication.” You may feel the same way about suggestion boxes that are used for complaints. But I must be blunt in saying that you’re wrong. If you install suggestion boxes, then prepare to get all kinds of letters (including poison letters) from employees — regardless of whether they’re good ideas or baseless gripes. And welcome them all.

You can’t simply brush aside complaints. My Jurassic bosses used to tell me that anonymous complaints must be ignored If I followed their advice, I would not have solved many issues head on.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I disobeyed my bosses. Instead, I was successful in convincing them that their approach was not the right one for solving such problems, and supported a more proactive two-way communication process. Because of that, they respected me for my independent thinking.

What you’re missing is the fact that employee complaints are clear manifestations that there’s something wrong somewhere. You must not ignore them because they are not using the right channels. Whatever conduit the employees choose is not important. What’s important is they’re resorting to a bottom-up approach to send a message, no matter how trivial or unpalatable the messages may appear to management.

Suggestion boxes are passive communication tools. Management doesn’t act unless it gets employee ideas. This is patently wrong. Regardless of the nature of the workers’ ideas or complaints — good or bad, fiction or fact, accurate or inaccurate, it should be management responsibility to act positively.

Jon Gordon, author of The Power of a Positive Team (2018) says: “Where there is a void, negativity will fill it. When we fail to proactively communicate with others, they will typically assume the worst.” At times, this is often neglected by management. If you don’t tell the workers their ideas and complaints matter, they may start assuming management doesn’t care at all. “It’s very hard to over communicate but easy to fall short.”

To “over-communicate,” management should be the first to establish and maintain the right environment where it is easy for all employees to proactively communicate. Sadly, reactive suggestion boxes do not meet this basic requirement. Therefore, if you want an honest and objective approach to engage the majority of the workers, your management, with the help of the human resource department, should establish a combination of the following programs:

1. Employee morale or satisfaction survey — This should be done by any organization to help measure sentiment towards management style, the salary and benefits package, working conditions, performance system, and many more. It’s best that all workers participate, although having a response rate of 65% is acceptable. As long as the workers’ identity is protected, you can be assured of an honest-to-goodness result that your management team can use to refine its strategies. If you can afford it, you can hire a consultant to lend you the expertise.

2. Problem-solving and decision-making teams — To help maximize the bottom-up, proactive communication approach, it’s advisable to establish kaizen teams, quality circles, or similar programs that would help solicit workers’ ideas. Make the program part of everyone’s key performance areas. Require all line supervisors and managers to be a part of the screening process. This alone should help both management and their workers to use the program as a platform for two-way communications.

3. Manager-worker regular one-on-one interviews — management must not rely on exit interviews. It’s too late for management to act. Rather, it’s best to conduct at least a monthly “stay interview” to help determine the pulse of individual workers. Rather than asking “why are you leaving?” which is a staple question in exit interviews, maintain excellent rapport with employees by asking the following questions: How can I help you with your career development? How could we make your job easy for you? What kind of resources would you need?

4. Open-door policy by top management — Related to number 3 above, one way to ensure that line supervisors and managers do a good job in resolving issues with their workers is to have an “appeal system” which people can use if they’re not happy with the resolution of their grievances or issues with line executives. It should be available to any worker, if he or she feels that any concerns are not handled properly. With an open-door policy, a worker need not worry breaking the chain of command.

Undoubtedly, good communication skills are one of the basic pre-requisites for any line supervisor and manager. This however, does not mean English proficiency alone, but the ability to effectively communicate one’s position to both subordinates and management. Being convincing is a necessity, whether you’re trying to motivate the workers or pitching a proposal to the boss. The rules are basically the same.


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