Dear Littler: How should we handle anonymous complaints?

Dear Littler,

I’m the CEO of a fast-growing company. A team of sales executives reports to me and each has a large team of sales employees that reports to them. Last week someone anonymously emailed HR complaining about Cara, one of our sales executives. The complaint is pretty ugly—allegations of bullying, toxic culture, and sexual harassment. The complaint is long on allegations, but short on specific details. Making matters worse, to call Cara a high performer would be an understatement. Cara is irreplaceable. She, and her team of 20, account for about 20% of our sales. I’ve also known Cara for many years. She was even at my wedding! I do not believe that she would engage in the conduct that’s been alleged. And if this complainant is so serious, why are they anonymous? Shouldn’t they have to come forward if they want me to do something about it? Who would I even talk to about the allegations since they are anonymous? Do we have to investigate this complaint?

—I’m Not a Mind Reader

Dear I’m Not a Mind Reader,

The complaint to HR sounds serious and could have long-lasting effects on your company. From a reputational standpoint, you don’t want to be known as a company where leadership behaves in this manner. From a risk management standpoint, you need to know what is going on and if there is a real risk of litigation. From a human standpoint, you want to ensure that your employees are not mistreated. Given your friendship with Cara, you should consider having a neutral third party investigate this anonymous complaint.

Employee performance does not reduce the need to investigate.

I get that Cara is a rainmaker and you described her as irreplaceable. I do not doubt her importance to the company, but at what expense? If these allegations are true, does that mean that Cara gets a pass? Is there a correlative scale under which the more revenue Cara generates the worse she is allowed to behave? Surely not. In order to maintain a safe workplace—and to be considered a workplace of choice—all employees, regardless of level or success, must be held to the same standard. Failure to treat all employees equally also increases litigation risk.

The investigation should be handled by a neutral third party.

You mentioned your friendship with Cara, she attended your wedding, and that you do not believe the allegations about her. Cara may be a great executive and even better friend to you. To avoid the appearance of bias, the investigation should not be handled by your HR department, but instead by a neutral third party. Given your relationship with her, and understandable confidence in Cara as a person, it would be easy for someone to claim that the investigation was biased if handled in-house. The best way to avoid that is to have a neutral third party investigate this matter to avoid even the appearance of bias.

The complainant may have good cause to remain anonymous.

I appreciate how frustrating this is to deal with when you have no way of reaching out to the complainant for more details. Before you write off the complainant for not identifying themselves, however, consider this: is there a reason they want to remain anonymous? Cara is an executive-level employee and potentially the complainant’s supervisor. With that power dynamic, they may fear retaliation. Additionally, the complainant could be multiple employees coming forward as one. We simply do not know. You are better off performing the investigation to find out what is going on before the matter ends up with a third party or state/federal agency.

There are strategic ways to investigate anonymous complaints.

Cara is an executive with 20 direct reports. That is a daunting number of people and there are logical and financial limits to workplace investigations. Instead of interviewing all 20 direct reports, the investigator could choose a representative complement of Cara’s direct reports to interview. While there is no magic number, in this case, five employees (25%) may suffice. However, you don’t want to choose them at random. Rather, the investigator should choose men and women, from different ethnic/racial backgrounds, and from different age groups. This ensures diversity of thought, opinion, and experience. The investigator can ask the witnesses open-ended questions based on the complaint. Additionally, the investigator may ask the witnesses whether others complained to them about Cara or if they heard of Cara treating others in the manner complained of. Additionally, the investigator could ask for the employees’ general feelings about Cara (to get a sense of sentiment) and if the witnesses know of any other employees who might be able to shed light on the issue.

Your employee raised a complaint; how you handle it speaks to the type of company you want to be.

In sum, at this point you cannot evaluate the complainant’s allegations because they are both anonymous and lack specificity. Regardless of Cara’s success, the complaint should be investigated to ensure you have a safe workplace, to avoid reputational harm, and to keep the matter out of the hands of a third party or state/federal agency. Given your understandable support for Cara, a neutral third-party investigator should conduct the investigation to avoid actual or perceived bias. Lastly, interviewing a representative complement of Cara’s direct reports is the preferred manner to determine what, if anything, is going on.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.