How to Write a Complaint to HR

So you were treated unfairly in the workplace – maybe you were discriminated against or are a victim of harassment or a possible hostile work environment. What course of action is there for addressing the mistreatment? Not everyone is ready to talk to a lawyer right away regarding workplace misconduct, but our law firm has learned that many people are missing out on a key step in defending themselves legally from workplace misconduct. Today, we’re going to discuss how to write a complaint letter to HR, what to include, and why to include it – and explain why this step is so critical to protecting yourself from your manager, boss, or colleague who may be mistreating you at work.

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Keep in mind that some types of complaints aren’t protected by Texas employment laws. Reporting that you’re being treated unfairly because of your political beliefs, the car that you drive, or your favorite football team don’t carry any protections at all in Texas. However, many people are often surprised by what is protected, which is why talking to an attorney is always a good idea.


Why do I have to submit a complaint in writing? 

A written complaint feels permanent: you can’t take back that email once it’s been sent. But having your complaint in writing does a few important things:

It creates a concrete piece of evidence that you made a complaint

  • Keep a copy of your complaint, but don’t BCC or CC yourself on the email. Print the email out for safekeeping at home, or open the sent email on your computer screen, then take a clear picture with your phone. We recommend never sending anything from your company email to yourself, which could violate company policy by sharing any information with your personal accounts.

It now has a timestamp 

  • Adverse actions taken against you after the date you complained may be considered retaliatory and there are protections in place for you in these situations.

It’s more formal and thus more likely to evoke a real improvement from the company

  • In some situations, like sexual harassment, the employer has to be given a chance to take action to prevent further harassment, and it’s harder for an employer to ignore a written complaint. 
  • Also, if you don’t give the company the chance to acknowledge unfair/discriminatory practices, the practices will continue and affect others, not just you. Writing a complaint is a way to resolve those unfair practices so that everyone can have a chance to work in a non-discriminatory environment.


Addressing common fears and misconceptions when approaching a written complaint to HR

  1. I don’t want to “play the race card.” Whatever the subject of your complaint, it’s easy to worry that personal things like race, age, or gender will be used as an excuse to dismiss you through hurtful cultural stereotypes (such as accusing a person of color “always making everything about race” or dismissing a woman’s complaint because she’s “too sensitive”). However, things like race, age, gender, and other human aspects are called protected classes for a reason. If you suspect your unfair treatment was prompted in any way by these factors, it’s critical for you to mention that in your complaint to preserve your rights.
  2. I don’t want them to think I’m ungrateful or incompetent. Keep your comments objective and stick to concrete examples (“It’s unfair that on Monday, my boss reassigned my sales area to someone else”) rather than generalizations (“It’s unfair that I never get good sales areas”). Be sure to mention positive performance reviews. This serves as a reminder to both you and HR that the complaint has nothing to do with your performance at work but is focused instead on specific instances of workplace mistreatment.
  3. I don’t want this to produce gossip or get back to my manager. Let’s imagine the worst case scenario that your complaint gets shared with others – if you get treated differently by others at work after submitting a complaint about discriminatory treatment, this treatment may qualify as retaliation. According to the EEOC, it is against the law to retaliate (take an adverse action) against an employee for “communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination, including harassment.” They further elaborate that “Participating in a complaint process is protected from retaliation under all circumstances.” We know that the risk of gossip may exist, but even if it happens, spreading false rumors may count as retaliation. An employment lawyer will be the perfect person to talk to in this situation.
  4. What if this complaint impacts my performance evaluation? Giving an employee a lower evaluation after the employee engages in a protected activity does count as retaliation according to the EEOC and could put the employer in a very difficult position legally. We recommend speaking with an employment lawyer if you believe that your performance evaluation was negatively impacted by a retaliatory reason.
  5. I don’t want to get fired. Ironically, this scariest outcome is actually the one that the law protects you the greatest against. If you get fired right after complaining about discrimination, harassment, or other mistreatment, a termination would make it much harder for the employer to argue that they weren’t mistreating you. Put another way, it may strengthen a potential case and make it much more likely that you can recover financial damages from losing your job.


Say exactly what happened and stick to the facts

It’s important to not embellish your complaint and to avoid heated, unprofessional language. Mention specific events exactly as they happened, and avoid generalizations unless you have specific examples that can back up your claims. We often have a bad habit of reporting on how we felt in the moment and can forget to mention the exact actions that happened that made us feel that way. Keeping your complaint fact-based helps HR realize that this is not merely a disgruntled employee; this is a serious complaint.


Keep doing your job as best as possible after the complaint letter to HR

Sometimes it can be difficult to put our head down and keep marching when we know we’ve been wronged, but it’s important to make sure that performance doesn’t get worse. Don’t give the company a legitimate reason for letting you go. If you are let go, make sure that the only reason could be retaliation for an HR complaint. 


Keep a list–at home–of workplace incidents

Did your manager’s behavior change after you reported harassment or discrimination? Was your bonus withheld, did your hours change, did inappropriate jokes start, or were you passed up for a promotion? Did anyone try to downplay your complaint by claiming you’re being “too sensitive” or “making a mountain out of a molehill”? Any of these things and more could be related to adverse actions in the workplace, and the more accurate your record of the times, dates, and locations of these actions, the stronger your potential case may be when seeking financial damages in a case of wrongful termination.

However, when you’re keeping records, don’t email sensitive information to your personal email for additional records; this could create a legitimate reason for your employer to fire you based on company policies. Once again, make sure there is no legitimate reason for your dismissal throughout this complaint process.


What if the person discriminating against me is in HR?

Here’s a short list of considerations if the person discriminating against you is actually a member of the HR team:

  • Check your employee handbook to see if there’s a company policy that provides a secondary place to submit a complaint. It’s always important to make sure you’re following company procedures by the book. The handbook is typically emailed to employees at the beginning of their job or saved on the company’s intranet.
  • Is there another supervisor to submit a complaint to? Your company policy may dictate that the manager of your manager, or another supervisor, may be the go-to for complaints. 
  • When in doubt, tell HR anyway. Even if you’re worried, remember that a company is  still prohibited by law to not retaliate against you or apply any adverse action against you if you complain about discrimination. It’s certainly not a great look on the company later if the HR team retaliates after you submit a formal complaint.


When in doubt, talk to an attorney

The reality is, the HR department is not always your friend. You may need an objective outside view to help guide you on how to frame up your complaint, or legal expertise and advice on a complicated situation. Our team at Jackson Spencer Law serves employees all across the state of Texas and we know how to protect your rights in the workplace. We start off by scheduling a free consultation (you can call us or fill out our form) to speak to our team and if your situation requires a deeper dive, we are also ready to review the facts further with you.