Can Your Supervisor Read a Complaint an Employee Wrote to Human Resources?

Many HR specialists have employees review their statements before signing.

Many HR specialists have employees review their statements before signing.

You're opening a can of worms in your workplace investigation if you let a supervisor read an employee's complaint she filed with the human resources department. Unless the supervisor has a legitimate need to know that the employee even complained or any of the details of her complaint, that documentation becomes part of an investigative file to which only certain HR staff and legal counsel should have access.

Complaint Process

Many employee handbooks contain the company's process for employee complaints. Depending on the company structure, some employers prefer that employees go to their supervisor first and if that's not feasible, employees should report complaints to the department manager before going to the HR department. It's prudent to go straight to the HR department in the event an employee can't talk to a manager. Once there, an HR staffer meets with the employee and typically provides information on how the company handles complaints.

Workplace Investigations

Workplace investigations should be held in confidence to the extent possible. Naturally, if an employee complains about sexual harassment, the HR specialist will need to provide each witness with a brief introduction about the complaint before taking the witness's statement. But the HR specialist shouldn't divulge specific details about the employee's complaint and she should never hand over an employee's written complaint for witnesses to review and possibly refute. That includes the employee's supervisor. Employees' complaints become a part of the investigative file and shouldn't be disclosed to anyone who's not on the need-to-know list.

Supervisor Bias

It doesn't matter whether the employee's initial complaint is in writing or whether the HR specialist transcribes the employee's verbal complaint -- the employee's supervisor should be allowed to read it. If the employee complained about the supervisor, then opening up the investigative file to the employee's supervisor could result in retaliation against the employee. Even if the HR specialist takes a statement from the supervisor, she wouldn't disclose everything the employee shared. One of the keys to investigating workplace complaints is receiving information from employees, synthesizing it and then asking witnesses questions based on analytical and critical thinking skills and standard investigative techniques.

Supervisory Action

If the employee complains about another employee, the supervisor may be privy to some details about the complaint, but he still doesn't need access to the written documentation. In this case, the HR specialist can make a recommendation to the supervisor to take action until the investigation is complete. For example, if an employee complains that she is subject to a hostile work environment because of her co-worker's actions, HR might suggest that the supervisor separate the two employees, assign them to different schedules or, in egregious cases, suspend the co-worker until HR makes its final recommendation.

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About the Author

Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

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