We Need to ACT Now … or Do We?


The Importance of “Triaging” Your Next Workplace Complaint

In today’s workplaces, leaders often receive – with great emotion – a complaint about “something that has happened” in their organization, along with a demand for specific and immediate change.

Leaders feel pressured to respond immediately in an effort to be and appear to be decisive and committed to the cause in question (e.g. respectful workplaces, customer satisfaction, public health). In doing so, they commit to a particular “position” from the outset: some deny the incident outright, saying it couldn’t possibly have happened whereas others take action immediately, committing to positive change, without fully knowing if or what change is actually necessary.

In both cases, neither leader allowed necessary time for due process to unfold, which left their decision vulnerable to attack – in terms of both substance and process.

The most defensible step for leaders to take when faced with any type of complaint, while perhaps counter-intuitive, is to take “no position” at all. Instead, leaders should “push the pause button” and take time to do the following:

  • Defuse any emergent situation that has arisen. Ask or direct an angry/irate customer or staff member to leave the immediate area or premises at large; end a disruptive meeting if it has become unmanageable; disengage from abusive direct, phone or email communication/interactions with the individual(s); and take any other steps necessary to mitigate risks to the physical and psychological safety of those involved or in the area.
  • Defuse any immediate emotional fallout related to a particular situation. If individuals appear angry, upset or otherwise unstable, help them regain control before speaking with them about the situation that apparently triggered their reaction. Individuals may need to leave the workplace early, seek internal/external medical support (First Aid or physician) or take a bit of a break before returning to their active duties.
  • Gather further information from those involved after the immediate situation has stabilized.
  • “Gathering information” is not the same as conducting an “investigation”; it requires the leader to ask preliminary questions to determine – as objectively and accurately as possible – the potential severity and urgency of the concern, without relying solely on the subjective perspective of the individual who reported it.
  • In collecting information, leaders should attempt to identify and “break down” inflammatory labels about a person or incident that only serve to confuse the situation. These include statements like “that leader is abusive and hostile”; “that employee is unstable and poses a safety risk”; or “that customer is a threat to our workplace”. Clarify such statements by asking further questions to better understand what they mean by working in an “unsafe” situation; by customers “threatening” staff; or by leaders being “intimidating” or “hostile”. What was said or done? What were the verbal and non-verbal behaviours observed? In what context did this take place? It is critical for leaders to discern specifics about the behaviour being alleged, not the characterizations of that behaviour by those coming forward.
  • In addition to better understanding the alleged behaviour at issue, it is also important for leaders to find out more about the frequency of that behaviour (or communication): is this the first apparent complaint or has this come up before with this particular person? Is it a pattern? Is it almost “anticipated” that this person (customer, leader, employee) will engage in this behaviour with particular individuals or the team as a whole?
  • Finally, it is important for leaders to understand the apparent impact of this behaviour: was anyone allegedly hurt by this? Were safety reports filed? Did anyone leave work early or subsequently call in sick, transfer or resign?
  • Remember that none of the information collected at this stage is “factual” – these are specifics of allegations used solely to determine “next steps” procedurally, not to make findings or draw conclusions.
  • The leader should not commit to taking any particular action during this initial discussion. This process is to collect information from the individual, not share information with the individual.
  • After collecting this information, the leader should thank the person for their input and advise that he/she will get back to them later with “next steps”.

The leader should use the information obtained in order to “triage” the complaint. This happens by doing the following:

  • If it appears, from the information provided, that the allegations relate to relatively mild to moderate concerns that have not been frequent/repetitive and have not caused significant disruption, then no immediate or urgent steps need to be taken. The matter can and should be objectively reviewed and resolved informally within the next few days.
  • If it appears, from the information provided, that the allegations relate to potentially significant concerns that have reportedly caused significant disruption (for individuals or departments), then immediate steps need to be taken.
  • The significance of the disruption may be the result of a severe one-off incident or due to less severe behaviour that happens more frequently.
  • The immediate steps that may need to be taken might involve “separating” individuals through non-disciplinary, temporary transfers; removing individuals from the worksite through non-disciplinary suspensions pending the results of an objective investigation, reporting the situation to regulatory and compliance agencies (e.g. police, safety and licencing regulators, insurers) and otherwise.
  • Once interim measures are taken, a thorough and formal objective review should be conducted.
  • Leaders should make it clear that the interim measures do not constitute a pre-judgment of the situation; they are implemented solely to stabilize the workplace environment during and pending the conclusion of an investigation, which often takes time to complete.

Once leaders have completed the triage process, they should circle back to those who came forward with concerns to update them (generally) about steps that will be taken to review/address the situation. In doing so, the leaders do not need to seek or obtain approval from staff on these steps; they simply need to let them know what they will be.

The triage process allows leaders to take the necessary time to “pause”, breathe and properly consider the potential magnitude of a given situation before taking action. In doing so, they are far less likely to over or under react to the apparent “crisis” before them. In the early days of an alleged complaint, no-position is often the best and most defensible position a leader can take.


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