Handling Staff Complaints


It is never a nice event for any HR manager when a letter of complaint from an employee arrives on their desk. For any company to have unsatisfied employees is disheartening as it can lead to poor staff morale and potential falls in the levels of production and/or sales. So what is the best way for these letters, and the issues stated within, to be handled?

Normally, if an employee has to resort to writing an official letter of complaint, then the situation they are writing about has already become, or is at least perceived to be, quite serious. Obviously, the best way to handle a letter of complaint is to ensure that your staff have nothing to complain about in the first place. That would be nice in an ideal world, and is certainly a goal to continually work towards. However, every HR manager knows that it is impossible to please all the people all the time. So inevitably, employees will, from time to time, have an issue over which they would like to voice their opinions. Your staff are the eyes and ears of your organisation: they see and hear things, either from outside the organisation or from each other, that managers frequently do not. As such, they should be encouraged to talk to management and HR about any issue involving the internal working of the company. Allowing your staff to voice their opinions can provide vital feedback to your organisation. It also makes employees feel a lot more involved with the company. People like to be listened to, and to share their ideas. Inviting suggestions and comments from employees can help to identify any potential problem areas, such as discrimination issues, office bullying, office environment concerns or even problem employees, before they become a major area of concern.

Regardless of being an ‘all ears’ company, a number of complaints are inevitable and it is important to adopt a fair, understanding and consistent approach when handling letters of complaint from disgruntled employees.


Normally such letters will be a formal written complaint from an employee following a verbal complaint to their manager or HR department, depending on your company’s grievance procedure. The most important thing to bear in mind with replies to letters of complaint is that they will go on file as a permanent record. Thus, personal views and opinions should, in no way, be expressed in the letter. All content must be factual and not make any assumptions. Think of your employees as customers. When structuring reply letters, think about how they would sound to a customer of the company rather than a member of staff. Keep the language formal and polite, but also to the point. Avoid circumlocution and tautology and don’t try to pad the letter out with unnecessary words that will only confuse the reader. Avoid accepting blame, especially in the early stages of handling a complaint. You will need to do independent background research and evidence collection before you can make any informed decisions as to what actually happened and who exactly was responsible at the time of the incident in question. For this reason when referring to items specified by the complainant, it is preferable to talk about allegations of something, rather than concrete evidence of something happening. Below are tips to consider when replying to employee letters of complaint:

General points:
  • Establish credibility – indicate that you are a person of sufficient authority to be able to deal with the complaint.
  • Send your response letter in a timely manner – this shows professionalism, courtesy and empathy. (As early as possible and in any event at least a preliminary reply should be issued within 7 days).
  • Give a point of contact with full contact details if the complaint needs to be followed up or escalated.
  • Directly address any problems highlighted in the complaint letter.
  • Repeat important information – you can also ask further questions to help clear up any current misunderstandings.
  • Avoid any comments or expressions of personal opinion.
  • Encourage feedback – thank the staff member for their input.
  • Use a polite, understanding tone and never argue.
  • Avoid communicating any feelings of prejudice.
When employees ask for advice:
  • If employees ask for advice – restrict your advice just to topics specifically requested. Keep explanations simple and to the point.
  • If employees ask for advice and you feel it is inappropriate / out of your jurisdiction to give it – express regret and suggest alternative contacts who may be in a better position to provide help.
Showing action you have taken:
  • Show that you take the complaint very seriously and demonstrate that you are taking appropriate steps to resolve the situation.
  • Propose a satisfactory solution, or at least an action plan to get things moving in the right direction.
  • In cases where your company is not at fault, but you still grant a claim either partially or fully, inform the staff member of his or her error, if any, to reduce the chance of it reoccurring. Do this tactfully and without accusation. Your reply should also demonstrate that the company values fair play and wishes to foster long-term relations with its entire staff.


Giving negative responses to requests:
  • Even if your response letter contains negative information, such as declining to follow a staff suggestion, you should still try to use ‘neutral’ vocabulary and maintain a positive tone.
  • Refusals will almost certainly disappoint staff members – so be tactful and explain why you cannot grant the request.
If you need more details to proceed:
  • If you have insufficient information to respond to a staff complaint immediately, your reply should solicit additional information or inform the staff member that you are in the process of collecting more information from another source before responding. It lets the staff member know that you take the complaint seriously.

Below are some key phrases useful for replying to employee complaint letters:

Beginning your reply:
  • I am replying to your letter concerning XXX / Mr. ABC dated 20 June 2007. In your letter received by our Office on 25 June 2007, you allege that…
  • In response to your correspondence dated 15 July 2007 regarding XXX in which you state…
Showing empathy:
  • We agree this raises serious issues…
Stating any background research:
  • In the course of our enquiries, we looked at… and learned that…
  • He/she/it purports…
Quoting relevant Labour Ordinances:
  • As you know, subsection 2(1) of ABC Ordinance states that:
  • I would like to bring to your attention that under company by-law no. 15…
Detailing action taken:
  • To this end, we have…
  • We are pushing XXX Department / Government body to get some action
  • We are trying to obtain the authority from XXX to be able to pursue this sort of issue with XXX in the future.
  • We are working to develop factsheets for employees to avoid similar misunderstandings in the future.
When action is pending:
  • As important as it is, however, the specific issue you raise cannot be resolved through the normal complaint mechanism.
  • Please be assured that from a policy perspective, we are as frustrated by this state of affairs as you, and we are actively pursuing the following initiatives with respect to this issue:
  • List all points that you have done
  • List relevant parties who have been contacted.
  • List partial replies / resolutions you have received to date.
  • In conclusion, we are unable to proceed with your complaint as we lack the authority to…
  • As a result, I am sorry to say that we have no choice but to close this file.
  • With respect to this issue, our Director Ms. XYZ will be contacting you in the near future to consult you on your views.

Source: HR Magazine