It’s only right – and lawful – that we focus our efforts on preventing bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination in our workplaces.

But sadly, even with the best will in the world, reports of unacceptable behaviour are likely to occur from time to time.

How we, as leaders, address complaints is as important as how we try to prevent them; if victims and witnesses do not feel comfortable speaking up and do not have the confidence that they will be taken seriously, issues will continue to fester and ultimately lead to a toxic working environment. Therefore, a robust complaint-handling procedure is a vital keystone in your prevention strategy.

Here’s our guide to successfully handling complaints of bullying, sexual harassment or discrimination:

  1. Take the complaint seriously

When you’re busy, the thought of dealing with a complaint of unacceptable behaviour may have you wishing you had kept your office door closed.

But attempting to solve problems by kicking them into the long grass and ignoring them never works – they will only continue to grow! Instead, look at complaints as an opportunity to find out what’s really going on in your team and nip issues in the bud as soon as you can.

You can show your people that you really mean business by ensuring they have clear routes for reporting unacceptable behaviour, for example, through line managers, HR professionals or an anonymous employee hotline. Clearly communicating these options really demonstrates your commitment to creating an inclusive workplace.

  1. Be open minded

Whether the complaint is about a microaggression, someone feeling excluded or sexual harassment, all should be paid the same level of attention.

It is not for you to decide whether an action should have hurt someone or not. What may not seem like a big deal to you, could be very damaging for someone else, so be open minded. Plus, telling someone how they should have reacted in a situation is a form of victim blaming.

You must remember that it may have taken a lot of courage and emotional toil for someone to make a complaint, so make sure you actively listen to what is being said and avoid trivialising or downplaying matters. For example, if a woman makes a complaint about cat-calling or wolf-whistling by a colleague, don’t make excuses (“Boys will be boys!”). Sadly, just because such behaviour has become normalised over the years does not mean it should go unchallenged.

Also, don’t be offended if someone makes a complaint that feels a little “close to the bone” for you. If you’re a man, and a female employee makes a complaint about a fellow male colleague, don’t jump to the defence of all men. If you know the alleged perpetrator personally, don’t start making excuses for them or dismiss the complaint out of hand. It insinuates that you are more concerned about how this situation could reflect on you, than the person who has been harassed.

  1. Decide carefully how to act

Once you’ve listened to the complainant, you must carefully decide how best to proceed with the issue in a way that is fair, sensitive and follows the right procedures.

In some cases, you may wish to informally speak to the person accused of the unacceptable behaviour. With some actions, such as unwanted “banter”, the perpetrators may not be aware that their behaviour is causing offence or hurt, and a sensitively conducted, sit-down chat could resolve the matter.

However, you may feel that the most appropriate way to handle the complaint is for the person who has experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination to raise a formal grievance. This could be due to the seriousness of the issue or, in some circumstances, you may only have the complainant’s viewpoint and need to gather evidence from both sides in a fair and impartial workplace investigation to determine the best outcome.

  1. Act quickly

Once you’ve decided how best to act, do it quickly! Allowing issues to gather dust will only make them worse or give the impression to the complainant (and your team) that they are not being taken seriously.

Remember, however you choose to handle the complaint, it is likely to be an anxious process for both the complainant and the alleged perpetrator, so getting on with things will help to ease any stress.

And, from a practical standpoint, recollections fade so you’ll want to talk to people straightaway if you’ve chosen to go down the route of a formal investigation. You also don’t want to find yourself having to deal with two or three complaints at the same time, simply because you sat on the first one for too long.

  1. Offer support

If you have decided to undertake a formal investigation, providing support to the person who made the complaint and the person accused is really important.

The behaviour experienced by the complainant is potentially extremely distressing. They may be worried that they will be forced to confront the person they say bullied or harassed them, be quizzed about their personal life or be victimised for making a complaint. Make sure they feel protected and offer mental health support.

Similarly, this is a very serious matter for the accused too. Do not jump to conclusions until you have heard all sides of a story and offer mental health support to them also.

For everyone involved, clear communication is key. Explaining the process, how long it will take and keeping everyone updated on progress will help manage expectations and reduce anxiety.


Tell Jane offers a wide range of services to support fair, inclusive and impartial workplace investigations. These include thorough training for in-house investigators and carrying out independent investigations on behalf of organisations across the UK, as well as an anonymous employee hotline service. Email to find out more.


Want to read more?

How to respond to a complaint of sexual harassment

Mediation vs investigation: choosing the right path for tackling workplace conflict

Leave a Reply

Back to top