Employee retaliation claims are up 25% in the last decade, and those types of claims make up about 30% of all the complaints filed with EEOC. Most of those claims are against supervisors, but HR is in the best position to do something about preventing the problem.
Retaliation claims are popular for a lot reasons. First, many federal and state laws protect employees from retaliation. Second, many employees realize they can sue their employers while still working for them. Third, sympathetic juries tend reward employees with big payouts.
The common retaliation scenario involves an employee who makes a complaint — usually to HR — about unfair treatment. Then the employee later gets a vibe, real or imagined, that someone in the company, probably the employee’s boss, is making things tough because of the complaint. And the temperature really rises when the initial complaints was against the boss.
So the initial complaint is against the boss. And generally, the retaliation complaint is against the the boss, too. Then what’s any of this got to do with HR?
Studies of retaliation cases show that whether or not a retaliation claim grew out of an initial complaint depended on how well HR dealt with the initial complaint. In other words, if an employee felt HR didn’t react properly, the employee’s next call was to lawyer.
What can HR do. Further studies of the cases show that, too:
- Have a credible complaint procedure, describe it to the employee and promptly follow the procedure. An employee who files a complaint expects quick action — sometimes to an unreasonable degree. Still you have to assure the employee that there’s a procedure in place and that you’ll work as quickly as possible to resolve the problem. If there are delays (such as a key person being out on leave), let the employee know about them and why they’re happening.
- Thank the employee for the information. This seems like a small matter, but employees see it as huge — how the initial complaint was received. You don’t have to take sides or agree with everything the employee says. The best approach: Let the employee know that you appreciate knowing someone has a problem and being given the chance to make it right.
- Underscore your zero-retaliation policy. You don’t necessarily have to mention “retaliation.” Just ask the employee to report any further experiences or events resulting from the complaint or participation in the investigation — letting the employee know you’re interested in making certain he or she gets fair treatment during the investigation. Pay attention to the little stuff the employee reports. If the employee is mentioning it, it’s not little.