When a Formal Complaint Goes Wrong


When a staff member with disability gets to the point where they feel it is necessary to seek an intervention, they may be advised to lodge a formal grievance or a respectful workplace complaint. But such an action can go horribly wrong. 

There are really only 3 scenarios here:

  1. The complainant is justified
  2. The complainant is experiencing psychological distress and has invented or exaggerated complaints – perhaps as a consequence of that distress. 
  3. The complainant has a personality disorder and has intentionally fabricated allegations to cause harm. 

Often, such action is taken to address the alleged conduct of a manager or colleague. 

The normal course of action is to approach one’s manager, in the case of a colleague being the person of concern, or the manager’s manager if the manager’s conduct is alleged to be the problem. These are the people whose duty it is to ensure appropriate conduct of their staff. 

This is where things go wrong in my view. Once alleged misconduct has been reported to a manager or executive, it is their duty to address the concern. This is especially the case if the alleged misconduct is a breach of the Code of Conduct. There is nothing in the code that requires anything beyond talking to a manager/executive. It is not clear where the other formal complaint mechanisms sit in relation to Code of Conduct violations. 

Complaints procedures are certainly useful for matters not related to the conduct of staff. Respectful Workplace complaints seem to be unnecessary – unless it is a formalization of an alleged breach of the Code of Conduct. In any case I hear frequent comments that Respectful Workplace complaints are ignored.

In fact here’s a quote from an email sent to me recently: “For me I have never had a Respectful Workplace Complaint where procedures have been correctly followed. Nearly all of them were ignored. I am not sure that I would waste my time writing a Respectful Workplace Complaint now because that it would not help and maybe make things worse for me.”

My point is that all NSW employees other than executives on contract sign the Code of Conduct. Executives no doubt do something similar. I just don’t know what that is. That is an enforceable contract. 

Consequently, where grievences and respectful workplace complaints fit into the picture is not at all clear. Clarifying advice for a staff member in need of triggering some kind of intervention is not given. This may explain why Grievance Handling has the lowest satisfaction rating – at 46% – of the 22 survey topics of the 2021 People Matter Employee Survey (PMES). In 2020 that rate was 45%, in 2019 it was 41%, and in 2018 40%. Even though there’s some improvement, that’s a high failure rate.

The Root of Failure

The responsible leader has 3 options open:

  1. Ignore or refuse to act on the request to intervene
  2. Intervene competently 
  3. Intervene incompetently

The first option is not justifiable under any circumstances. And yet it is commonly reported. 

The third option seems sadly more common than is desirable – and can end in catastrophic outcomes. 

I have participated in several of the second options, and I can confirm that competent intervention can sometimes require considerable tact and subtlety – and courage. But that’s another story. Successful interventions are not the point here.

The point here is the question: “Exactly how and why the person seeking the intervention should become responsible for initiating any formal complaint against the person whose conduct is causing distress?” Surely, having sought an intervention from a leader whose responsibility it is to ensure respectful conduct of their staff, the focus of any complaint should be about the inaction or incompetence of the person asked to intervene – not the person who is the victim of the alleged misconduct. 

The complaints process deflects attention from the real failure and now the complainant has two problems- the original one and now a new one – inaction or incompetence. 

This tends to be only the beginning of a disastrous process that so often ends with the staff member with disability being blamed for the whole mess. 


I was recently provided astonishing detail of a scenario in which a staff member, needing to address the conduct of their Manager, approached their Director, seeking their intervention. The Director’s response was to help the staff member draft a formal complaint concerning the Manager in relation to whom they had a direct supervisory role. 

It is pertinent to ask why this course of action was taken. I believe that the Director was aware the concern was justified but was either unwilling or unable to address the problem. 

In this case a Respectful Workplace complaint was lodged separately, and it did not go well. The staff member with disability, who had, in my judgement, a legitimate ground for seeking an intervention became a scapegoat for multiple failures of responsibility.

Is the System Designed to Harm?

Of course not. Until I had become aware of the issues that can arise from lodging a formal complaint, I assumed, like everyone else, this was the proper way of doing things. But the reality is that processes like complaints handling have never been designed with the complainant in mind. They are modelled vaguely on our legal conventions, which have been designed to protect ‘the system’ rather than the individual. This seems to be part of our culture. This is most evident in the fact that criminal offences are ‘against the crown’, and personal redress must be sought through civil action. Victim impact statements and restorative justice are relatively recent innovations. So, a person who is beaten up is not the focus of concern. Rather, the beating offends the crown, and it for this offence the perpetrator is punished.

Systems that are designed to be ‘objective’ can hurt the individual who is the victim. People are not objects. In my view ‘objective’ processes have no place in a human-centred environment such as a contemporary public sector workplace. Well, at least not as a first recourse – and unless there are grounds for taking formal action of some kind, where clear legal obligations come into play – such as if disciplinary action is considered necessary.

The situation described above caused harm to the staff member with disability who sought an intervention, not because there was an intent to do so, but because their welfare was not considered as a primary concern. The complainant was alleging harm being done to their welfare, and they wanted an end to that harm.

That’s a human concern. In fact, it is a safety concern – but it is not seen as that.

Here’s an excerpt from an email of a former colleague who read the draft of this essay.

For myself, and countless others, placing a complaint against management is a last resort. It is an extremely difficult decision- usually made at the point where one can no longer tolerate the abuse, or the emotional injury has become so significant that one can barely function. This type of injury is not limited to business hours. It is an injury that is ever present and effects the family and social relationships of the abused person.  

What’s the Difference Between a Complaint About a Manager’s Conduct and a Work Health Safety Issue?

Substantively, nothing. It’s a matter of categories only. Organizations can choose what box they place an issue in.

In this case, imaging if the staff member with disability had gone to their Director to complain that their manager had refused to address a faulty electrical device that was a risk of causing serious injury. It would be most likely that the Director would have acted promptly, spoken to the manager, and assured the faulty device was repaired or decommissioned.

It is when the hazard is human conduct that confusion arises. So often inaction or ineptitude ensues. There is no mystery why this is. Having the ‘hard conversation’ is never easy for people with normal emotions. The need to discuss a staff member’s performance is never welcomed. Exactly why, in this situation, did the Director not simply have a conversation with the manager, require an outcome, and monitor its delivery?

The situation is worse when the person in question is not expected to take the conversation well. Handling these situations takes skills few possess without coaching and support. And, in the unhappy anticipation of the ‘hard conversation’ being difficult and unpleasant, the worst preparation will be had.  And the risk of an awful experience is magnified.

The matter is made worse when, in those mercifully few instances, the subject of the conversation is known to be reactive and resistant. It does mean that some executives might prefer that a complaint, or complainant, goes away. It is remarkable how often I heard of requests for intervention being ignored – and the person in question was a manager with a reputation for being a bully or persistently discriminatory. You could get the impression that a calculation was made, and the complainant was assessed as ‘dispensable’.

What Really is the Issue?

In my experience, in the majority of cases, when a staff member with disability seeks an intervention because of a failure to address a workplace adjustment request, or seek relief from bullying, the cause is valid. I have been involved in only one case when a complaint was not justified. The staff member was experiencing psychological distress unrelated to their work. They elected to seek employment elsewhere and were successful in securing a role they were happily still in 2 years later. That could have been catastrophic, but it wasn’t. The intervention helped key players understand that the staff member needed compassion and sensitivity, not cold processing. Still, it was a difficult process,

Responding to a request for an intervention is a clear responsibility of a leader. Inaction, or inept handling, is not okay. Putting the responsibility back onto the complainant is most certainly not the right thing to do. Getting to the point of having to complain usually means a significant amount of emotional distress has been experienced – and many things have failed along the way. 

When a staff member with disability gets to the point where they need to seek an intervention, something has gone wrong with how a work environment is managed. There is a failure of management that must be addressed. A request for an intervention is an opportunity to address a performance deficit in a developmental way – and if that does not work, there are other steps available.

But, instead, so often the complainant is ‘punished’ for complaining. The stress that leads to the need to complain is then added to by backlash responses. In the case that stimulated this essay, the matter was ‘investigated’ by an ‘independent investigator’. A very detailed complaint was provided. The ‘independent investigator’ dismissed every single issue raised after interviewing the manager who was the subject of the complaint – and, apparently, no one else. This was even after at least one of the peers spoken to confirmed that the manager’s conduct was deeply problematic. I know this because I know that person and confirmed what they said.

Somehow the request for help placed the complainant in the spotlight. They were made to look unreasonable – an unjust accuser.

So, imagine. You have been subjected to bullying by your manager for nearly 2 years. You talk to your Director, who helps you draft a formal complaint, rather than talking with the manager, who they supervise. The Director is responsible for engaging an outside investigator who does not talk with you at any length. A report dismissing your complaint is prepared, based entirely on an interview with your manager. Everything you allege is dismissed. Then you are encouraged to participate in a mediated discussion with the manager.

How do you feel? If you haven’t been through an experience like this, let me help you. I have spoken with a few survivors of the misfortune of having their concerns dismissed – and being subjected to retribution for daring to raise them.

You feel emotionally exhausted. You feel bewildered. You feel traumatized and betrayed. The odd thing may be that feeling belittled or feeling angry is rarely confessed. I think it may be there in the background. The people I speak to are strong. They are injured, but they are strong. They know their case is just. How many are broken and never tell their story?

To emphasis this point, here’s another except from the email sent by the former colleague who read the draft of this essay.

For the many who do have the courage to place a complaint and then have the capacity to endure the aggressive nature of HR and line management umbrage, pales in number compared to those that are unable to cope with the arrogance of those who are supposed to be fair minded, or the obtuse nature of the complaints process. So many I have seen, and know, leave completely humiliated, emotionally exhausted and in many cases with long term emotional injury. 


Formal complaints processes about the conduct of peers or managers seem to make sense – until you stop to think about it. Responsibility for managing an employee’s conduct rests with managers and executives. Their job is to intervene in situations where conduct is inappropriate, and in breach of the Code of Conduct. If a formal complaint must be submitted it should be initiated by leaders who have failed to address the issue and need formal backup. They are the people who need the support of a formal process.

Staff with disability are vulnerable to bullying, discrimination and abuse by staff and managers whose conduct is a clear violation of the Code of Conduct. They should not be expected to initiate any formal process to address their concerns. Their obligations end at informing a responsible leader of perceived misconduct – and seeking their help to end it. 

The current approach in the NSW public sector distances responsible leaders from their duties to ensure good conduct of staff who report to them. It puts the complainant in the firing line. It ignores the psychological stresses that are present before a complaint is submitted, and the failures of responsible leaders who manage to miss or ignore the conduct that led to the complaint.

In a well-managed workplaces, there should never be a need to submit a formal complaint about the conduct of a peer or manager. If such a need arises, it is because of the failure of leadership. But that failure is almost never acknowledged. Instead, the complainant becomes the scapegoat.

The frequency with which complaints or requests for intervention are ignored completely is not something that has been measured. What is more common is a decision to not do anything because there is no confidence that complaining, or asking for an intervention, will not lead to failure, and retribution. That’s not just a lack of faith in ‘the system’. It’s a repudiation of the characters of the leaders. How did that come about?

In 1989 Ernst F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered was published. It transformed a lot of people’s thinking. In 2022 we need something similar on Management as if People Mattered.

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