The “V” Word. Why we must recognise ‘vexatious’ complaints exist and deal with them effectively
The vast majority of complaints are raised by staff who feel genuinely aggrieved and believe they have been treated unfairly. They raise these complaints in good faith and without malice and their decisions to complain have not been taken lightly.
However, there is a minority who submit vexatious or malicious complaints for a variety of reasons.
I have investigated some complaints where I have witnessed and experienced a very real reluctance by Managers, Deciding Officers and HR Departments to use the ‘V’ word. I completely understand this phenomenon given employer’s aspirations in encouraging staff to raise difficult issues as part of their aim to create a supportive and bullying-harassment free environment.
One example of such reluctance was when I investigated a complaint of racial discrimination made by a manager against two fellow managers. My HR investigation highlighted significant independent and compelling corroborative evidence indicating that the complaint was vexatious and I raised this in my report and subsequent debrief to the Deciding Officer. The Deciding Officer and indeed the organisation’s HR Department were extremely reluctant to recognise this and although they found there was no case to answer they failed to adjudge the allegation as vexatious.
The complainant took the case to an Employment Tribunal where the judge found there was no case to answer and dismissed the complaint. The respondents’ (who felt aggrieved at the judgement) then took the case to a second Employment Tribunal where the judge found in their favour and awarded them and the employer damages of £30K. In summing up, the judge stated that “damages/costs could only be awarded if a claimant had acted vexatiously, abusively or disruptively and the claimant had not been disruptive or abusive.”
I believe this reluctance to recognise or use the ‘V’ word and properly address instances where vexatious complaints are made, presents significant risks for us as HR professionals. By failing to name vexatious complaints as such, we undermine the credibility of our profession, and do a disservice to the majority of those who are genuinely aggrieved and make legitimate complaints.
In a recent criminal case a 21-year-old woman claimed she had been raped by a stranger as she left a gym. An extensive police investigation ensued which resulted in the public arrest of a man at his workplace, and he was subsequently remanded in custody. (Daily Express, April 2012). Further investigations of more than 350 police-hours costing some £14,000, uncovered E-mail exchanges between the pair which clearly showed that the allegation was false. The woman was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and jailed for 14 months. When sentencing the judge summarised; “False allegations of rape undermine the plight of genuine victims.” A Rape Charity supported the police and subsequent court action and condemned the false allegation stating “[this vexatious complaint] caused harm to genuine victims and should be pursued, as it was in this case”.
The motivation in this case was that the complainant was worried that her boyfriend would find out she had had sex with another man.
This is an extreme case and obviously a criminal act. However parallels can be drawn with vexatious workplace complainants with regard to “motivations to complain”, the obvious being an attempt to divert attention from the complainant’s own behaviour.
Fair, impartial, thorough and robust investigations will expose such behaviours and provide respondents with the reassurance that they will not become ‘victims’ of a vexatious complaint.
I believe the HR profession must show the determination to recognise such cases. Individual HR professionals need the moral courage to effectively deal with them, and employers need to have clear policies and procedures in place to support HR and make clear to all staff where their responsibilities lie when making complaints.