If you are dealing with malicious complaints at work or a situation where an employee making false accusations against co-worker, you first need to consider if the complaint falls under U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws. EEOC grievance laws cover workplace complaints that appear to be discriminatory against a job applicant or an employee due to the person’s race, their religion, color, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or age.
These types of workplace actions are illegal, and they mostly apply to unfair situations between business owners, managers, supervisors, or any other person that is in a position of power or has the ability to hire and fire workers.
But, what about those times when coworkers simply don’t get along, and you have had a malicious and formal complaint filed against me?
First of all, if the complaint against the coworker includes certain behaviors such as sexual harassment, threats of bodily harm, and even cyberbullying that is conducted on business computers, then these matters are very serious and must involve HR and possibly even law enforcement agencies.
What we’re discussing here is much more common. That is, underhanded, malicious, spiteful, and venomous acts from a coworker against you. While these behaviors don’t rise to the level of protection under EEOC laws or your company’s documented workplace conduct and ethics guidelines, there is something you can do when you’re in a situation where a coworker filed complaint against me.
What are malicious complaints at work?
A complaint can be malicious simply because it is untrue, one-sided, or the complaint is an exaggeration of the facts. Unfortunately, some workplace cultures have more bad behavior between employees than others. Signs that a company may have a toxic work environment include:
- a high turnover of workers
- supervisors that ignore complaints
- employees that move in cliques
- an excessive amount of gossip
- coworkers that hate their jobs
- an excessive work schedule that causes burnout
- the inability to grow within the company
Within these types of work environments, bad worker relations may have nothing to do with personal sentiments, but are simply an outcropping of a malicious (stepping on one another to get ahead) or vexatious (workers that are constantly frustrated and worried about their job) type of work culture.
But still, when someone files a complaint against you, knowing how to conduct yourself and what steps you can take will be key to keeping your cool and keeping your job.
What does it mean when someone files a complaint against you?
If a coworker files true or malicious complaints at work against you, typically HR must offer that employee the choice to continue in the grievance process. A grievance is any formal complaint, accusation, or statement that an employee is in violation of some workplace policies.
Each company has its own grievance procedure, with some being a casual inquiry by HR and hopefully a resolution, while other companies mandate following a strict grievance process. What happens with these types of formal grievance procedures is that everything is documented. Then the matter is presented to a series of employees (typically managers) that have oversight and power to act in these matters.
The goal is to determine if the grievance is valid, then go through the process to settle the matter. What happens during the investigation phase depends on the severity of the accusation, the proof that is presented, and the final decision that is based on the company’s ethics guidelines.
If there are no clear-cut guidelines for the type of complaint being made, then HR, an investigator, or managers have the power to make a final decision to solve the grievance. This can range from a verbal or written warning, paid or unpaid suspension, being moved to another department, the filing of a civil or criminal report, or termination.
Do I have the right to see a complaint made against me?
Understanding what to do when a coworker filed complaint against me will be critical to winning the war (even though you may have lost the battle). You may wonder “do i have the right to see a complaint made against me?”, especially when the employee making false accusations against co-worker has it in for you.
Whether you have the right to see the complaint early in the grievance process depends on your company guidelines and whether they think the nature of the greivance makes it important to keep the complaining party anonymous – at least until they’ve gotten your side of the story and discussed matters with legal professionals.
You may be confused and wondering what you may have done that is so bad that a coworker filed complaint against me. Some quick examples of things that may be done unwittingly and without even knowing you’ve offended someone include:
- unknowingly making an offensive remark about a coworker’s ethnicity, age, gender, religion, or disability
- revealing your pay and benefits package to incite anger or jealousy from an employee in a similar position
- You may have done something to create an unhealthy or unsafe work condition.
- You exhibited certain behaviors or language that were viewed as deceptive or passive-aggressive.
- You have a dominating personality such as a loud voice, glares, and other behaviors that seem threatening
- you’ve made a decision that is seen as retaliatory by a coworker that you don’t get along with
- accusations of stealing another employee’s property, stealing company time, or stealing company assets
What you will always be able to see is any documents that someone claims has been written by you and are offensive or threatening. Documentary evidence includes threatening emails or obscene notes someone claims you have written to a coworker. If the situation leads to litigation or mediation by a third party, then your side may have the right to see any documents and hear any interviews done with your accuser. This is simply so that you or your lawyers can mount a good defense.
Dealing with HR and the investigation
Early in the grievance process, you will have to meet with HR and possibly your supervisor to discuss the matter. Remember, if a coworker filed complaint against me, I should be given the same rights as they were given. That is to have time to share my side of story, to respond to the allegations, and to have equal fairness during the investigation process.
Once you know what the claim is concerning, start asking questions like how long it will take to resolve the matter and what are the next steps that will be taken by HR. But, always stay careful with what you say and how you act. Keep your tone serious and calm when talking to HR or other investigators.
Be sure to answer all questions fully and honestly. The last thing you want to do is to change your story or timeline. While doing so may be an honest mistake, it can often look as if you’re trying to answer questions to fit the case and not the reality.
HR may ask you to keep this matter confidential until a conclusion is arrived at. It’s okay to get clarity on why they feel this way. Often, it is simply to keep a bad situation from getting worse with other coworkers chiming in with their opinions. While you are not legally obligated to refrain from discussing the grievance at work, at home, or elsewhere, it truly may be in your best interest to do so.
If you have a trusted coworker that can keep the matter confidential, it may relieve some of your stress to get their opinion and to get insight into what other workers are saying or thinking.
Start keeping detailed notes, any related documents, and contact information for any witnesses that can help support your side of the grievance. HR investigators will, and should, remain neutral. So, don’t get upset if you feel they are not taking your side. If they are acting professionally, then they should not favor one side over the other.
How to handle a complaint against you at work
Finally, it is important how you handle yourself with your accuser. Resist the temptation to lash out against a coworker. If you’re innocent, of course, you will be upset. But, losing your temper will only make the situation worse. Be a real team player and support the investigation into the matter, while also avoiding any contact with your accuser, if at all possible.
If the accusing coworker is approachable, then an attempt to clear up any misunderstandings is not a bad idea. But, you may want to do it in the presence of another coworker or a supervisor. Why? Well, put yourself in the other person’s position. They are accusing you of something in which you may lose your job.
They may imagine that any confrontation with you will be full of anger, rage, and hatred. Therefore, keep a good distance, allowing the other person their own space. Speak in a calm, steady voice, and avoid any accusatory statements. All you want is clarification, not vindication.
If any accusations have criminal implications, then don’t hesitate to seek the counsel of a lawyer or other trusted professional advisor.
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Founder of Eggcellentwork.com. With over 20 years of experience in HR and various roles in corporate world, Jenny shares tips and advice to help professionals advance in their careers. Her blog is a go-to resource for anyone looking to improve their skills, land their dream job, or make a career change.