We all complain sometimes. We’re only human. And workplaces aren’t immune to it. Typically, a couple of disinterested, disengaged or just downright grumpy employees might have a grumble at some point during the working week.
You can hear it in their tone, and the general tenor of what they say, and if you’re a manager or a business owner, we don’t need to tell you - it can be an array of issues, ranging from the surprising to the predictable.
Perhaps it’s a colleague’s annoying ring tone, or they’ve been asked to perform a task outside of their job description. Either way, this is one of those aspects of management that make it a complex game. It takes patience, no doubt. Critically, it also takes judgement – in knowing what complaints to take seriously and which ones can be taken with a pinch of salt.
If you’re unclear on what workplace rights you’re required uphold, here’s some help in how to begin deciphering what can be dismissed as a moan, and what could have greater consequences.
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
Starting with the basics, workplace laws ensure that employees are protected under an employment agreement or any relevant award or enterprise agreement. If you’re up to speed, you’ll already know that these are the documents that are the go-to for determining employment conditions like salary and other entitlements. Make sure all your employees have one - that’s best practice. All employees have the right to participate in lawful union activities too.
Beyond this, the Fair Work Act is clear that every employee has the right to be treated equally, regardless of race, sex, age or disability, amongst other things. In practice and in person that means our personal odour, birthmarks, dermatitis and comb-overs are all part and parcel of us as a person and must be accepted as such.
When more untoward behaviour becomes repetitive in nature, then there might be a duty of care for the employer to intervene, under the workplace bullying and harassment laws.
The Fair Work Act even gives us the right to make a ‘complaint’ or ‘inquiry’ while at work. Where the line must be drawn is less clear, between complaints about the ply of toilet paper in the shared facilities, and matters which are obviously more substantial. At the very least, a complaint should be related to a person’s work.
Complaints which have been upheld, in which the employee was found to have been exercising a workplace right include:
- Where an employee was not paid a commission in accordance with their employment agreement;
- Where a colleague was found to have a conflict of interest - in choosing to engage their daughter as a preferred supplier to the business; and
- Where a senior manager made inappropriate statements.
These cases suggest that a complaint or inquiry has to be about something that has direct and tangible impact on a person’s employment. By contrast, an employee’s concerns about another staff member’s dissatisfaction with their job, or complaints about the general lack of structure or direction within the business have been found not to be examples of employees exercising their workplace rights.
ADVICE: It’s not always obvious what is a workplace right – and what isn’t . When in doubt, err on the side of caution and get professional advice.
POLICY: Get solid policies and procedures bedded down. They should be underpinned by workplace legislation - specifically discrimination, equal opportunity and workplace health and safety laws. The tighter your policies, the less opportunity for uncertainty - or complaints.
TRAINING: Tackle the hard stuff early. Provide regular training and communicate to employees what is an actual workplace right - and what is not. You might find there is less complaining and more time spent achieving your business goals.
Most employees avoid being the squeaky wheel. So complaints about real workplace issues might be few and far between in your business. But they can happen. And when they do, it can be tricky to get the business of an employee’s rights, well - right.
So get the right policy in place, take advice where you need to and avoid making on-the- spot decisions. There might still be the occasional grumble, but you’ll be clearer about what’s justified- and so will your staff.