Making a formal internal complaint of inappropriate conduct in the workplace can be a scary proposition. So many employees are worried about whether they will be taken seriously, whether they’ll be perceived as a whiner or overly-sensitive, and – perhaps most scary of all – whether they will be retaliated against or pushed out of the workplace for taking a stand. We get it. Even in the best case scenario, with a diligent and understanding HR representative and a company that wants to get it right, making a complaint is just flat out uncomfortable. That said, it is so important for employees to advocate for themselves and remind employers that they are accountable for providing equitable and decent workplaces. Toward that end, here are some tips and best practices for employees who are considering making a formal internal complaint.

When Should I Make a Complaint?

You should consider making a formal internal complaint as soon as you feel that you have been subjected to discrimination, harassment, retaliation, defamation, or some other unlawful or unethical treatment by a supervisor, coworker, or employer. Unlawful treatment often takes the form of unjustified performance criticisms, discipline, demotions and other adverse employment actions. Typically, these actions will ramp up over time and may, ultimately, lead to a termination. While you don’t want to make a complaint for every little slight in the workplace, you also don’t want to wait so long to complain that you find yourself without a job. Making a formal complaint before the situation escalates too far may be the best way to protect your job going forward. It puts your employer on notice of the inappropriate conduct, gives them an obligation to investigate and (to the extent they confirm the conduct about which you have complained) to remedy the conduct.

How Should I Make my Complaint?

The safest plan is to make your complaint in writing. Complaints made verbally create the same obligations to investigate and remedy for an employer, but they leave the door open for miscommunications or mistaken recollections. Worse, they may allow a dishonest employer to deny the complaint was made at all. If you submit a complaint in writing, it allows you to specify exactly what conduct is at issue and what you want investigated and to keep a record of what you have submitted. Even better, if you submit your written complaint via email, you will have a record of exactly when your complaint was received which can be helpful in assessing whether your employer’s response was prompt and appropriate.

Who Should I Submit it To?

Typically, your employer’s policies will set out a process for submitting these sorts of internal complaints. You should review your handbook and familiarize yourself with complaint procedures before submitting anything. In practice, though, you should feel free to make your complaint to whomever you are most comfortable with in HR or management. Do you have a mentor who you trust in the company’s upper ranks? You might want to start there. Is there an HR person who you know has been receptive to complaints from other employees? Then submit your complaint to her. Would you prefer to make your complaint directly to your boss? If you are comfortable with that, go right ahead. All of these people likely have an obligation to pass your complaint on to HR or, at a minimum, to tell you where you need to submit your complaint to ensure it is handled appropriately.

What Should the Complaint Say?

There is no formula for a strong internal complaint. Generally speaking, you should set out in some detail in what way you believe you are being discriminated against, harassed, or otherwise treated inappropriately. You should give examples and names of witnesses to the extent you can so that the employer has concrete information to look into in conducting an investigation. And you should state explicitly what you are complaining of. In other words, if you believe you are being treated differently than your coworker because of your race, use the words race discrimination. If you believe that since your return from FMLA leave, your boss has taken away your responsibilities and stopped communicating with you, state that you feel like you are being retaliated against for taking FMLA leave. Don’t leave it to your employer to guess at what your concerns are. Making an explicit complaint of unlawful conduct in the workplace amounts to “protected activity,” which means that an employer is obligated to protect you from subsequent retaliation and, if they fail to do so, gives you a right to pursue legal action for that failure.

There are no right answers to any of these questions, but I hope that this will help you feel more confident in standing up to your employer if you find yourself in the uncomfortable position of having been treated unlawfully in the workplace.