Communication Skills

Communication skills for an employer or contact person


For employers to deal with complaints well, they need to learn to communicate effectively. Discrimination and harassment are sensitive issues which cause distress,  and they need to be handled with care. The language an employer uses, the way an employer listens and the questions that are asked are all important to the process, and increase the likelihood of the problem being solved quickly and effectively. 

Meeting with staff

How you meet with your staff to discuss problems or complaints is an important part of dealing with them. Here are some tips:

  • meet in a private and comfortable location
  • avoid distractions and interruptions
  • introduce yourself and explain your role
  • ensure your facial expressions, posture and gestures match what you say
  • keep an appropriate distance
  • invite people to talk
  • ask for background to the problem
  • don't ask too many questions
  • allow comfortable silences.

It is important to be non-judgmental and not to express your opinions. Try to avoid some common phrases.

  • Generalising – "everyone knows…" "you always…" "men always do that."
  • Stereotyping – "people like that always…"
  • Diagnosing – "the real reason you feel that way is…"
  • Giving advice or ordering – "what you had better do now is …" "just stay away from him." "you have to …" "you must…"
  • One-upmanship – "when I was assaulted…" "That's nothing. You should hear about…"
  • Judging – "what you should have done…"

Your staff are more likely to help you solve any problems if you speak with them well.


Listening is a key to basic communication and essential for complaint handling. Most of us don't listen very well unless we consciously work at it. It is not a passive activity and requires concentration. When listening to your staffs complaints:

  • be non-judgemental
  • face them and lean forward a little towards them
  • maintain an open relaxed position
  • avoid distracting gestures and nod to show you are listening
  • use eye contact but be conscious of cultural differences in this regard
  • give feedback and make encouraging remarks now and then
  • allow silences
  • give them time to collect their thoughts
  • don't put words in their mouth
  • be aware of their body language - non-verbal behaviour such as facial expressions, posture, and gestures give clues to what they are feeling.

Show you understand them by summarising or re-stating in your own words what they are telling you.

Asking questions as an employer or contact person

When you talk to staff about a complaint, information will emerge naturally without asking questions if you actively listen and reflect back what they are telling you. If you need to find out more, avoid asking WHY questions.  Instead, ask questions starting with HOW, WHEN, WHAT or WHO. Use questions to help the person clarify their feelings and attitudes. There are three major kinds of question:

  • Closed questions - lead to a specific answer.  Ask a closed question if a specific answer is needed, for example, "Who is your supervisor?"  It is not usually appropriate to ask a closed question to determine how someone is feeling, for example, "Are you angry?"
  • Open questions - give people scope to explore relevant areas.  Use open questions to encourage people to expand on the story, for example, "How did you feel when that happened?"
  • Clarifying questions - check your understanding of what is being said, for example, "Do you mean...?" or "Am I right in thinking that what you are saying is...?"
Questioning techniques

Here are some examples of ways to ask appropriate questions after statements have been made about an incident of discrimination or harassment.

      Possible Question       Appropriate Responses
  • "It's better now."
  • "Better than what?"
  • "Nothing can be done to improve the situation."
  • "What makes you think nothing can be done?"
  • "They're all being mean."
  • "Who is?"
  • "My friends will suffer if I make a complaint."
  • "How do you think your friends will suffer?"
  • "What repercussions do you think there will be?"
  • "Have your friends supported you throughout the incidents of harassment?"
  • "Can you think of any ways which might make it easier for them if you make a complaint?"
  • "I feel very scared about this situation."
  • "What makes you feel scared?"
  • "Can you think of anything which could help you feel less scared?"


Dealing with distress

In dealing with complaints of discrimination and harassment, it is usual for people to be angry, hurt or upset. It is important for you to know how to deal with distressed staff. If they are showing signs of distress: 

  • Reassure them that it is okay to feel miserable or angry.
  • Affirm their right to complain and your willingness to listen.
  • Give clear messages about your role, what you can do, what you expect, what they can expect.
  • Establish appropriate boundaries, structural, physical and emotional – for example, be clear about your role's limitations, don't invade their space or talk about your own problems.
  • Respect their expertise and knowledge about themselves and their circumstances.
  • Ask for information - this helps them move from distress to problem solving.
  • Offer empathy, not sympathy.
  • Offer resources to help rather than try to 'rescue' them.

Before staff leave a meeting in which they have been distressed, change the subject and talk to them about ordinary things. This can help calm them down before re-entering the workspace.