How to put your complaint into words
Updated October 2015
This page helps you set out a "grievance", which in an employment situation is an employee's complaint to their employer. Where employer and employee have a cooperative, reasonable relationship, grievances are unnecessary and some people get through their entire career without ever having to resort to them.
Different countries and different engagement contracts give employers different obligations when responding to grievances. Check your written statement of terms and conditions and/or your employment contract to find out your rights and the procedure that applies in your case. If you discover that you don't have a contractual right to air a formal complaint with your employer, e.g. if you're a self-employed freelancer with no employment relationship with your client "employer", then this strategy is of little use to you. If you have a proper employment relationship, at least in the United Kingdom you have a contractual right to raise a complaint, and your employer has a contractual duty to respond to it in a reasonable way. If you believe that your employer has breached your employment contract, you're required to have raised the matter with your employer before you can successfully claim constructive dismissal.
Bullyonline.org has pages with lists of bullying behaviours, and many readers say they identify with items on those lists. They can help you put your situation into words and lead some readers to the conclusion that they are being bullied. However, even if you have realised that you're being bullied at work, statements like "I am being bullied", or "X's behaviour amounts to bullying" are judgments that you make; statements of your opinion. They hold no real weight in a grievance letter, because an employer cannot act on your opinion without knowing the underlying facts. If you propose to complain to your employer about bullying, your complaint must identify the acts you're complaining about, who did them, when they happened, and the effect they had.
Do not expect your employer to be as fascinated as you are that an actual person's behaviour is exactly as described elsewhere on this website. However, it is reasonable to describe a series of individually trivial acts having a cumulative, destructive effect as "bullying".
These guidelines can help you compose a more effective grievance letter.
Send it to the right person.
It might be your supervisor or manager, but if your complaint is about them, send it to someone more senior in the organisation, if there is one. If you have a Human Resources department, then the HR manager might be appropriate. Check your procedure. Unless you have a compelling reason to copy more senior people, do not copy them, because one of them might be required to remain unconnected with the matter so they can remain impartial to deal with your appeal, if you subsequently appeal the first decision on your grievance. If you are a member of a trade union, they might send the letter on your behalf, if not, you may wish to send a copy to your union representative. It's normal to let the recipient see who has been sent a copy.
Write in a plain format, in a single, non-elaborate font like Arial. The facts of a complaint written in non-emotive style in a plain format will stand out for themselves. Number the paragraphs so they can be easily referred to later. It is acceptable to use one or two alternative formats, e.g. one for section headings, and another if, for example, you have a series of excerpts from e-mails to quote, you might put the quoted parts in italics.
DO NOT send letters that include combinations of different fonts, sizes, italics, CAPITALS, bold, underline, different coloured text and highlights to emphasise words and phrases you think are IMPORTANT. Such formatting never delivers the emphasis the writer hoped to achieve.
There's a nice example of how to format a letter here.
Emotive language attempts to persuade the reader to adopt the writer's opinion, but facts get lost in the process, so do not use it. Here are examples of emotive language:
- Non-emotive version: Another person in the bar was injured by the man's glass.
- Emotive version: An innocent bystander suffered facial injuries when the thug launched his glass across the bar.
- Non-emotive version: Mrs Green's email expressed her disdainful opinion of my work.
- Emotive version: Mrs Green sent me a rant email that proved she wants me sacked
- Non-emotive version: Mr Jones attacked Mr Smith for two minutes.
- Emotive version: For what seemed a lifetime, Mr Smith was subjected to a vicious, cowardly assault by the unemployed, steroid-pumped monster.
Read more guidance on emotive language here .
Also avoid abusive language and make sure that nothing in your letter might anger the reader. Imagine you're writing it for a high court judge to read, and you want to impress him with your calmness and moderation in the face of adversity.
Stick to the point.
The point of the letter is to communicate enough detail about your complaint so as to allow your employer investigate it. No more, no less.
Stick to the facts you can prove.
Before you write this letter, you may have kept a journal of the bullying, along with evidence. If you have not, now is a good opportunity to get your head around the experience, write out a timeline and gather together what evidence you can to support your beliefs. Documents in support of workplace bullying are often work related documents. Gather as many relevant items as you can, as early as you can in the process.
An employer can investigate allegations if they are statements of fact or reasonably held belief, but not if they are unsupported statements of your opinion or judgments.
A statement of fact might be: "On 18th October at about 11:30, at the General Manager's desk in the main office, I told him that if my department's resourcing was cut back any further, we would no longer be able to perform to the required quality. I suggested that we would have to stop working on project B to finish Project A. He said: 'If you don't think you're up to the job, you can always leave and I'll do your job in my spare time'. It sounded like he thinks my job is easy and I am very inefficient at it. Two of my colleagues (X and Y) were standing next to him, and I know they respect his opinion, so I felt humiliated in front of them. I didn't know what to say, so I did not answer him, but I was very angry and upset inside. That evening I wrote an account in my journal, as well as how I was feeling."
An unsupported statement of opinion on the same incident might be: "Les is a mean bully who will not let me have the resources to do my job and he says he could do it in his spare time. He always undermines me in front of my colleagues."
The first statements have a chance of being verified, but the second has not. The unsupported statement of opinion could be judged as unqualified, whereas statements of verifiable fact cannot reasonably be said to be unfounded. Read this page for information on the law of defamation.
For each incident, you need to state what happened and include the date and time of each incident, the location, who was involved, what words were said, and the names of any witnesses. If there was more than once incident, write your account in chronological order. If you can't remember an exact date, you can say "about three days after I returned" etc. The more precise you are, the less chance there is of the accused person plausibly denying your allegation.
Tell them about your evidence
Tell your employer what evidence you have to prove your points. You can include copies of supporting documents with the letter as long as there aren't too many. If you have a ring binder full of information, it would be better to keep it and send a copy on request. Piles of documents can be hard for others to understand the way you want them to, and so it might be better to talk them through the evidence when you meet. Always keep the originals and only ever send copies. If you have some evidence that you are worried about disclosing, for example, an covertly-made audio recording, think very carefully and/or seek specialist advice about the possible consequences of disclosing or not disclosing it to your employer.
Summarise at the beginning
Once you have composed your letter, summarise the content in less than half a page, and put it on the front page.