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QUESTION OF THE MONTH:
Anonymous Complaints Okay?
We are preparing to offer to our employees a method to provide anonymous feedback. It will provide a way to report all types of information without the fear of repercussion. What types of advice or preparation should the HR department do before providing this to employees?
While we are unaware of any prohibition against having employees submit feedback anonymously to the employer, we do not recommend any policy or practice of allowing or condoning anonymous complaints. In practice, anonymous comments and complaints are often vague, uncertain as to their legitimacy, and typically give the employer little or not enough useful information to initiate and undertake an appropriate investigation. Worse, such complaints arguably put the employer in the status of knowing about a potentially inappropriate, or even unlawful, situation underfoot with little or nothing to go on in connection with investigating it and/or remedying any harm that may be occurring. For example, if an employee submitted an anonymous complaint about a potentially unlawful workplace condition, the employer would still have a duty to investigate, but in such a circumstance the employer may lack important information about the underlying concern that would be needed to conduct an effective investigation, including the identity of the individual making the complaint and perhaps other relevant facts. In addition, the employer would be unable to collect more information without knowing the identity of the person who complained.
We understand the idea that employees may be more willing to report unsafe, uncomfortable or even unlawful conditions in the workplace if they do not have to reveal their identity in doing so. The benefits of any such "anonymous feedback" policy, however, are not outweighed by the detriments and risks to the employer. Therefore, we must caution the employer against creating or supporting any anonymous feedback practice. As noted, when a complaint is made anonymously, it is difficult for the employer to meet its investigative duty and achieve the objectives of conducting a prompt and thorough examination into possible unsafe or unlawful circumstances, and taking appropriate action to remedy them.
The better approach, and our recommendation, is to ensure that all employees know that any concerns about the workplace that they may have are important to the employer and should be brought to management's attention promptly, and without fear of retaliation or reprisal. In fact, your policy should go so far as to place an affirmative OBLIGATION upon employees to report -- in a non-anonymous way --unlawful harassment, discrimination or any other inappropriate conditions that they experience or witness. Employees also need to know that they can complain verbally or otherwise in other written format (including email) if that is more efficient or comfortable for them, and employee complaint procedures MUST give employees more than one avenue/person to direct their concerns. For example, if a complaint procedure requires employees to first bring any matter to the attention of their manager or supervisor, an employee who is having a problem with that very person is not going to be able to follow the policy, and may forego complaining altogether. This situation can be avoided by providing alternative complaint avenues for employees, including the ability to skip one or more "rungs" in the chain of command if they want or feel they need to do so. Again, the employer's policy must assure employees that they will not be retaliated against for making such concerns and/or complaints known to the employer.
You may want to explain this to employees when reviewing your complaint procedure with them so that they understand why anonymous complaints are discouraged. Again, the best practice and our recommendation is for the employer to implement a policy that encourages, indeed requires, employees to come forward with complaints or concerns, and with a strict policy prohibiting retaliation of any kind when they do so.