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From whiners to winners: channeling employee complaints

By Elaine Varelas, 10/3/2006

If your organization is like most, you probably have your share of complainers. You may detest listening to employees gripe about work; it can be an unpleasant part of an HR manager's role. But next time Ima Whiner or Mr. Nitpicker shows up at your door with yet another complaint, refrain from just placating them and sending them back to their cubicles. If you dismiss these employees so quickly, you may be missing something.

While you may dread fielding complaints, they could be a window into a significant issue at the company. In fact, complainers in the office can carry valuable messages about your organization. The issue could be manageable-a problem you can address and likely solve, like a bully manager or dissatisfaction with a new policy. Or it could be a colossal, Enron-esque debacle where an employee from the accounting department becomes a whistle-blower uncovering a financial scandal.

How can you tell the difference between an employee who needs to blow off steam and one who has a potential whistle to blow? How do you differentiate an employee with a legitimate issue from one who just needs to vent? It's true that some people aren't happy unless they are complaining about something-and it's reasonable for an HR manager to consider this motivation first. If you have a few whiners who need a sounding board to feel better, let them vent! This type of employee is actually quite rare. In fact, most employees don't want to complain. Consequently, when an employee gets up the nerve to bring an issue to your attention, it is probably something that is really bothering him or her.

People complain to HR managers for a variety of reasons. Most of the time, something just doesn't "feel" right. They have a gut instinct about a situation and need to share it with HR. Some may have trouble sharing because they don't want you to be mad at them. It is also possible that employees may have trouble sharing the issue with you because they don't know how to communicate the problem. Often, these can be gray-area issues and employees may not be sure that they are right.

In these cases, a complaint may be disguised as something else. HR managers need to be on the lookout for these veiled complaints. An employee may use humor or sarcasm to test your response. They also may throw out a random comment to see if it sticks. Some may want to give you a "heads up," but don't want their colleagues to see them too closely aligned with management. It is the HR manager's job to look under the rock to see if an issue needs to be explored more thoroughly.

HR managers can assist employees by teaching them "productive" complaining. One way to do this is to take every complaint (even Ima's) seriously. You listen when the CEO has a complaint. Give the same consideration to others in the organization. It is also helpful to run each complaint through the Four Step Complaint Process. This process helps weed out the lesser complaints and provides a starting point for dealing with the legitimate issues. Here's how it works:

  • 1. Define the Problem- Work with the employee to pinpoint and define the complaint. Ask probing questions like, "Is something brewing that I should know about? Why is this bothering you? What made you come to me?" Help them help you figure it out.
  • 2. Identify the Motivation- Why is the person complaining? Is it personal, or is the employee speaking for a group? What is at stake?
  • 3. Suggest Solutions- Push the employee to help come up with ideas to move the issue from a complaint to something more constructive. What action will help in this situation? Who needs to be involved? What is a reasonable timeline for implementing a solution?
  • 4. Resolve the Issue- Once you come up with a solution, implement it immediately. By putting it off, you risk having the issue grow and continue to plague the individual or the organization.

When the complaint is handled with this process, it empowers the employee to take responsibility for the situation and allows them some control over the outcome because they are encouraged to contribute. This process helps weed out the complaints (and complainers) who just want to gripe, but gives some consistency to the complaining process. It can also stop problems before they have a chance to snowball into something much bigger.

Nobody likes a complainer. But as an HR manager, it is your job to listen and help employees channel their complaints. When so much could be riding on the issues employees bring to you, it is important to take each one seriously and treat each employee fairly. You may even start looking at complainers in a whole new light. [an error occurred while processing this directive]


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