If you’ve been in HR long enough, you have probably received an employee “vent letter.” An employee “vent letter” is a letter written by a former or departing employee detailing a list of complaints or concerns about the organization. These concerns have not been previously expressed either to their supervisor or during the exit interview process. They can come in the form of a casual email or something that has the look and feel of a formal complaint.
Since the employee has or will be departing, the question for HR is how to best to handle these letters. According to Steve Miller, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Chicago, these letters should be handled the same as issues raised during an exit interview. A vent letter might shed light on:
· Why employees are leaving
· What areas of the company need improvement
· Issues that are resolvable
· Managers’ leadership styles and effectiveness
· Policies or procedures that could be improved
· Concerns other employees have but have not articulated
From a risk management perspective, if the letter raises issues that would normally be followed up on if they came up during employment, then HR absolutely needs to get involved. If the concern is regarding things such as the organization’s culture or a manager’s supervisory style, the issue is worth reviewing to determine whether is it a valid complaint and if there are changes that can be made.
One of the most difficult aspects of an HR professional’s job is handling the number of complaints that are received on a regular basis, and it is important that HR doesn’t become too hardened. If the matter relates to more ordinary and non-legal employee relations issues, then an email or letter acknowledging the letter’s receipt and stating that the organization has looked into the concern should be sufficient.
If the matter is something that has legal implications such as issues relating to harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, an investigation should take place. A letter acknowledging receipt of the employee’s letter should be sent to the former employee. According to Michael D. Jones, an attorney with Eckert Seamans in Philadelphia, “This response should not promise or suggest any action will be taken.”
The organization should be working with their legal counsel to determine the appropriate course of action and no communications should be sent to the former employee without legal review. Often, the first step will involve contacting the former employee and requesting an interview. The intent is to gather more information such as details regarding what was said or done, the date of the occurrence, who was involved, if there were any witnesses, and so forth.
The process of a normal investigation will proceed from here, which would include documenting any interactions with the employee and subsequent outcomes as a result. This shows a good faith effort on the employer’s part to make sure unlawful conduct is not taking place, in case of later litigation. Once the matter has been resolved, the email, letter, and the investigatory file should be maintained in the same location as their customary practice.
Sometimes employee venting appears anonymously on sites such as Glassdoor. In these instances, the issues should still be investigated and treated like the organization received it through an anonymous tip line based on the information that is available.
If employers see a pattern of vent letters, they should consider taking a look at their problem resolution and exit interview processes to determine why employees are waiting until they are out the door to raise their concerns. It can indicate that the wrong person is conducting the interview and might be the target of the complaint. Other exit interview problems can include timing of interviews and the types of questions that are being posed.
Additional ASE Resources
McLean & Company - ASE members have access to exit interview and offboarding process blueprints via the McLean & Company portal. Simply login to your ASE Dashboard and click on McLean & Company under My Resources.
Sources: Mondaq 4/26/2018, SHRM 4/16/2018