(Illustration by Jefferson Miller)

Dilemma of the Month: What should I do with an employee who won’t stop complaining?

Back Article Sep 14, 2022 By Suzanne Lucas

I have an employee, Kate, who does mediocre work. Not good enough to be promoted, but good enough to keep from being fired. This isn’t a problem, except she’s constantly complaining about the job. I want to tell her to go find another job or shut up. The other employees don’t complain, so I know it’s not a “me” problem.

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Some people like to complain. And if you spend time on Twitter, you’ll start to believe everyone wants to complain. Kate may be one of these people. Or it may be a “you” problem or, rather, a “your team” problem. Either way, there is a solution, so let’s tackle it.

What if it’s a “you” problem?

No one else complains, so it’s definitely just a problem with Kate, right? Honestly, this is likely the case, but what if it’s not? 

You need to sit down and think about what Kate complains about. If it’s strictly complaints about her pay, you know she’s paid fairly, and there is good internal equity, then ease your mind. But if it’s something else (or she’s not paid fairly), you must take a good look at things.

Do you assign tasks fairly, or does Kate get the worst stuff because she’s a complainer? I’m not saying you can’t do this — complaining isn’t a protected class, and if you’re going to whine, there might be consequences. But if this happens, you must be clear to Kate that her tasks will change if she stops whining.

Is someone bullying Kate? Bullies are experts at flying under management’s radar. Think back to how teachers ignored the bullies in school — well, now you’re in the teacher position. Is someone treating Kate poorly? Is she truly the one complaining, or are others complaining that Kate is complaining? Could this be a bullying situation? You need to look at the possibility that Kate complains because her situation is intolerable.

Are her complaints accurate and important? If she complains that the cafeteria never has grilled cheese sandwiches, that’s not a real problem. But if she complains that the cafeteria never serves anything vegetarian, that’s a real problem. A company big enough to have a cafeteria has multiple vegetarians.

There are any number of situations where Kate’s complaints should lead you to action, and you might be dismissing them just because Kate is a complainer.

And then there’s the other option:

Kate is just a complainer.

She’s not the only person you know like this — undoubtedly. You could give some of these complainers a million dollars in unmarked bills and they’d complain that some of the bills are wrinkled and dirty. People like to say there is nothing you can do to fix these whiners, and there generally isn’t — but you’re Kate’s boss and have the opportunity to either help her fix herself or leave the company.

You say her performance isn’t bad enough for you to fire her but is her complaining causing problems at work? If she’s constantly complaining to you, it’s doubtful that she’s a ray of sunshine around her coworkers. If she’s customer-facing, does she take this negative attitude to the customer? That’s a disaster.

The first step is to put it in Kate’s hands. Tell her that if she has a complaint, you want her to bring a reasonable solution along with the complaint. That should either slow the complaints or at least bring solutions. But, if that doesn’t stop it, it’s time to move on to a more concrete solution: a performance improvement plan. An employee’s attitude is part of the job. 

You have a sit-down discussion with a witness. If you have HR in your business, that’s your first choice, but if not, another manager. Here’s what you need to do.

  • Address how Kate’s complaining is affecting her work. Does it take time away from her tasks? Does it make her coworkers not interested in working with her? Does it turn away customers? Does she miss deadlines because she’s busy complaining about things?
  • Create clear, measurable guidelines for helping her change. If you can’t measure it, don’t include it. If you’re asking for a reduction in complaining, you must track it. If you want to focus on performance issues, keep it to those. But make sure it’s measurable.
  • Emphasize that if someone or something violates the law, she is to complain immediately. Even on the PIP, you want to be clear that Kate should complain about sexual harassment, racial discrimination, securities violations or other illegal violations. The last thing you want to do is have her claim you told her not to report sexual harassment because it is a “complaint.”
  • Offer Kate help. You’re not a therapist, but you can suggest she call the employee assistance program and get help. 
  • Meet regularly with Kate to help her and track her progress. A PIP without follow-up is a waste of everyone’s time.

If Kate doesn’t meet the terms of her PIP (usually 60-90 days), you can terminate her. If you balk at that thought, then maybe it’s not as bad as you think it is, and you can just coach and correct without a formal performance improvement plan. That’s okay, but understand that you chose to accept her constant complaining — so you don’t get to complain about it. 

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Douglas E. Welch (not verified)September 7, 2022 - 9:36am

Another possible explanation is that she dislikes her job but can’t bring herself to quit. She wants to be fired to remove the responsibility for that decision to leave. It is similar to wanting a boyfriend/girlfriend to cheat so you have an excuse to leave them.

Chris Hogg (not verified)September 7, 2022 - 10:12am

You say, "That’s okay, but understand that you chose to accept her constant complaining — so you don’t get to complain about it."

You might want to say this again, a little louder, for the people in the back.

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