Employee Preferences for
Reporting Manager Misconduct
IndustryView | 2014

Having clear lines of communication open when an internal issue arises at work is important for employers and employees alike. But this becomes a sticky situation when a manager breaks the rules, as employees are often afraid to speak up.

In this report, human resources (HR) departments will learn what methods of reporting would make employees feel more comfortable with filing a formal complaint against their boss for violations, and how software can aid this process.

Key Findings:

  1. Sixty-eight percent of respondents expressed some level of discomfort with filing a formal complaint against their boss.
  3. The highest percentage of respondents (35 percent) either didn’t know what the proper channel was for filing a formal complaint against their boss, or didn’t have one.
  5. Employees would feel equally comfortable filing a formal complaint against their boss in a meeting with HR as in a meeting with the boss’ manager (32 percent each).

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As the National Business Research Institute recently reported, a lack of communication can be a major point of dissatisfaction among employees in regard to their employers. But even if organizations keep clear, open lines of communication, workers may still be hesitant to speak up when a problem arises.

For example, what should employees do if they witness or experience misconduct by their boss? They may want to report the issue, but fear the resulting consequences—such as in the case of an employee earlier this year who was suddenly let go after complaining that his boss had wrongly solicited him for money.

With this in mind, we surveyed full-time employees to find out how comfortable they would be filing a formal complaint against their boss, and how their employer’s current methods for filing complaints compare to the methods they would prefer most.

Most Employees Not Entirely Comfortable Reporting Manager Misconduct

We first wanted to know how comfortable full-time employees would be with filing a formal complaint against their boss (assuming the complaint was justified). Less than one-third of respondents (32 percent) said they would feel “very comfortable” filing a complaint—with the rest expressing some level of discomfort with the idea.

Comfort Level With Filing Complaint Against Boss

Comfort Level With Filing Complaint Against Boss

A big reason for this lack of comfort—and what distinguishes this situation from filing a complaint against a co-worker—is the possibility of retaliation.

Legally, retaliation is defined as the “punishment of an employee by an employer for engaging in legally protected activity, such as making a complaint of harassment or participating in workplace investigations.” This punishment can manifest in a number of ways, including verbal abuse, employee termination or, most commonly, being excluded from important decisions and work activity.

“Generally speaking, filing a complaint against your boss is a discomforting thing,” says Dr. David Lewin, professor of management, human resources and organizational behavior at UCLA Anderson School of Management. “If complaints are a black mark against you [as a boss], you can imagine that any number of people in positions of authority are going to retaliate.”

When we broke out our results by age, it was interesting to note that the highest proportion of workers who were “not at all” or “minimally comfortable” with filing a formal complaint against their boss were 65 or older.

Comfort Level With Filing Complaint Against Boss, by Age

Comfort Level With Filing Complaint Against Boss, by Age

According to Lewin, the main reason for this lack of comfort among older workers is likely seniority. There’s a big difference between, for example, an entry-level employee complaining about their manager and a president complaining about the CEO.

“Our own research shows that the higher you go in organizations, the less likely employees are to file complaints,” he says. “Somebody who’s older, and presumably been employed by their company longer than someone who’s middle-aged or younger—they’ve potentially got a lot of money tied up in a retirement plan. If they have a complaint, and they were to get fired or their complaint wasn’t substantiated, there’s a risk there.”

Retaliation Charges Are Most Frequently Filed EEOC Complaint

As it turns out, employees’ fear of retaliation may be justified. In 2007, 26,663 retaliation charges were filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), making it the second most frequently filed charge; behind those based on racial discrimination. In 2013, that number rose to 38,539 to become the most commonly filed charge.

EEOC Charges, by Type (2007-2013)

EEOC Charges, by Type (2007-2013)

Source: EEOC Charge Statistics

Lewin suspects a lack of training and high manager turnover as the root causes for this growing number of retaliation complaints filed with external regulatory bodies.

“We have, in the U.S., the highest rates of turnover and change in supervisor and management positions of any country in the world,” he says. “So we keep pushing people through these positions and opportunities at pretty fast rates—and that often means that people come into them knowing certain things well, but not necessarily knowing how to deal with complaints well. Unless they’re trained in that, people will retaliate.”

Any form of retaliation is illegal, but recent legal decisions have made it harder to prove. Even then, employees may not be aware of the negativity that comes with filing an external retaliation complaint.

“[With] the kind of communications we have, and with the ability to search about anybody else,” Lewin says, people can quickly learn who filed a complaint. “If somebody wants to come to me with a complaint—if they want to bring it to a Fair Housing Authority or the EEOC or elsewhere externally—they need to recognize they’re going to be known for this. It will be on your record, and if you want to find another job somewhere else, it’s going to complicate your life.”

Many Employees Don’t Have or Aren’t Aware of Formal Complaint System

Should an employee’s boss violate conduct policies, that employee must know the proper channel for filing a formal complaint before the issue can be resolved. We asked respondents what channel their current employer primarily encouraged them to use to file such a complaint. Thirty-five percent said they either didn’t know what the proper channel was, or they didn’t have one.

Most-Used Channels for Filing Complaint Against Boss

Most-Used Channels for Filing Complaint Against Boss

In-person meetings for filing complaints were more common than using email (41 percent, combined, versus 19 percent), and complaints were more often filed with HR than the offending boss’ manager (a combined 37 percent versus 23 percent). Dedicated employee relations software, which allows employees to file complaints anonymously, was the least-used channel, at 4 percent.

A primary reason why these employees could be unaware of the proper channel is because they’ve simply never thought about reporting wrongdoings. In fact, it’s estimated that 60 to 80 percent of all misconduct observed by employees is never reported.

“Most of the time, if an employee has a complaint, their first step is not to put something in writing; usually, that’s their last step,” Lewin says. “Their first step is to decide if the issue is bothering them enough to complain about it.”

Across all companies, Lewin adds, most managers would want to know when employees have complaints. As such, employers would be wise to have a dedicated channel for reporting complaints and make its existence well known to employees.

“If you see that a supervisor has been the subject of three or four complaints, and another has one or two and many others none at all, [that’s] telling you that you’ve got some problem supervisors,” Lewin says. “It’s not just information—it’s information for decision-making and action purposes.”

Meetings With HR, Boss’ Manager Are Most-Preferred Channels

Using the answers above as a baseline, we then asked respondents which channel for filing a formal complaint against their boss they would prefer to use most. In-person meetings with the offending boss’ manager or with HR tied as the most-preferred methods (32 percent each), followed by sending an email to HR (19 percent) and using dedicated employee relations software to file an anonymous complaint (9 percent).

Preferred Channels for Filing Complaint Against Boss

Preferred Channels for Filing Complaint Against Boss

In-person meetings allow employees to feel more comfortable about the situation for a couple of reasons. First, they allow the employee to provide more detail, and answer any follow-up questions the moderator handling the complaint may have.

Employees may also feel like their complaint is being taken more seriously if time is dedicated to an in-person meeting. This could be beneficial to the employer as well, as employees are more likely to follow a moderator’s suggested resolution if they are treated with respect and fairness.

“You can’t really have a conversation via email,” Lewin says. “[Employees] want an in-person meeting because they want to explain things. They want the person that they’re speaking to to be able to see them ... which you don’t get through a telephone call or email. These kinds of things become very personal, and the more personal they are, the more you want personal contact.”

Comfort With Filing Formal Complaint Is Important to Job Satisfaction

Is being able to comfortably complain about a superior’s misbehavior important to professionals in the workforce? To find out, we asked our sample how integral it is to their job satisfaction that they feel comfortable filing a formal complaint about their boss, should the need ever arise. Forty-five percent of respondents said this was “very important,” while 30 percent said it was “moderately important.”

Importance of Comfort With Filing Complaints to Job Satisfaction

Importance of Comfort With Filing Complaints to Job Satisfaction

Should the workplace ever become hostile for employees, they need a safe way to be able to communicate that to management—and they need to feel like something is actually being done about the problem. Otherwise, they might look elsewhere for employment, Lewin says.

Software Can Help Manage Complaints, Increase Employee Comfort

As evidenced by the data in this report, employers would be wise to create clear channels for communication to encourage employees to feel comfortable reporting complaints so any issues can be effectively investigated and addressed.

A Web-based HR information system (HRIS) can help in this regard by keeping complaints securely documented and organized and automating the resolution process. These solutions allow companies to do the following:

Record all complaints filed. While our data found that employees prefer to raise manager complaints during in-person meetings, it’s essential to document the complaint in writing for company records. If an HRIS has document management functionality, HR staff can upload a copy of a signed, written complaint to the system, or ask the employee to sign an electronic complaint using digital signature technology.

Manage and track complaint resolution. Once a complaint has been filed, the organization then needs to investigate it. Common HRIS features such as automatic reminders, email integration, messaging capabilities and employee performance notes help ensure that every part of this investigation is logged, and that all parties are up to speed and collaborating discreetly.

Gain employee trust. Our data shows that many employees are uncomfortable with filing a complaint against their boss. Having a dedicated system in place that can help run a thorough complaint investigation can go a long way in helping staff feel more confident bringing up manager misconduct issues, and thus help improve overall job satisfaction.

Additionally, some organizations may choose to seek dedicated employee relations software. These solutions, many of which can integrate with HRIS solutions, provide additional functionality, such as generating Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)  reports and allowing employees to file anonymous complaints through a dedicated portal.


To find the data in this report, we conducted a three-day online survey of five questions, and gathered 3,943 responses from random full-time employees within the United States. All survey questionnaires undergo an internal peer review process to ensure clarity in wording.

Sources attributed in this article may or may not represent partner vendors of Software Advice, but vendor status is never used as a basis for selection. Interview sources are chosen for their expertise on the subject matter, and software choices are selected based on popularity and relevance.

Expert commentary solely represents the views of the individual. Chart values are rounded to the nearest whole number. If you have comments or would like to obtain access to any of the charts above, please contact brianwestfall@softwareadvice.com.

Brian Westfall

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