Scott Pate, SHRM-SCP
For the benefit of everyone in the workplace, complaining employees shouldn’t be allowed to spread their discontent unchecked. They will sow seeds of animosity among their peers and will misrepresent their personal indignation as a reality within the company when new employees join the team.
In collaboration with company leaders, HR professionals must work to create and maintain the culture they desire. If an employee’s conduct opposes that ethos, it is HR’s responsibility to stop the conflicting behavior.
The chronic complainer will often attempt to engage co-workers in their negative and unproductive discussions. They view their co-workers as allies and believe they are equally passionate about the issues.
While co-workers may understand the concerns, they often don’t want to get involved, and the constant barrage of unwanted negativity has a significant impact on the team’s mental health, productivity, engagement and ultimately retention.
Toxic culture is the top driver of employee attrition, according to survey results published in the MIT Sloan Management Review in January 2022. “A toxic corporate culture … is 10.4 times more powerful than compensation in predicting a company’s attrition rate compared with its industry,” researchers concluded in the article, titled “Toxic Culture is Driving the Great Resignation.”
With negativity as the top reason employees are quitting their jobs, HR can’t allow complaining employees to spread their unresolved negative musings. Complaints must be addressed head-on, and if an amenable solution can’t be agreed upon, the complaints must be stopped.
When new employees join the team, they are eager to start contributing to the success of the company and are ambitious to grow in their careers. The new hire is the perfect prey for the complaining employee.
The opportunity allows the complaining employee to share their choicest “Let me tell you how things really are around here” stories. The complaining employee views themself as the only mentor who will be honest with the new hire and feels as if they’re doing them a favor by cluing them in to the otherwise unspoken inner workings of the company.
However, such complaints can result in expensive damage to the organization’s internal reputation. The cost of replacing an individual employee can range from one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary, according to Gallup.
Complaints can also end up triggering the underlying issues being complained about. If the employee complains that the team is overworked and individual expectations are too high, a new hire may be persuaded by this view and begin to see every interaction with leaders as proof that the concerns are real. This perception of a toxic work environment could cause the new hire to quit, increasing the team’s workload and expectations that the new employee was meant to alleviate. This undermining pattern by the complaining employee reinforces their cynicism about the company. Leaders demand to know why no one is staying after they’re hired, and HR continues to sort through resumes trying to fill the gaps and get productivity back on track.
Complaints from employees may have value and should be investigated. An engaged employee will seek to make the workplace better by finding a solution to their issues and concerns. But the employee who spreads negativity without seeking an honest solution is a detriment to the company and must be shut down before they cause irreparable damage to the culture that HR is working so hard to sustain.
Taking time to listen is the key to a productive workforce.
It’s harmful to an organization when leaders fail to understand that employees complain because they want to be heard. In 2021, the Workforce Institute at UKG surveyed more than 4,000 employees in 11 countries and found that 86 percent feel people at their organizations aren’t heard fairly or equally. By not listening, employers can cause workers to disengage, fuel turnover and hinder business performance, the report The Heard and the Heard-Nots found.
While chronic complainers can require a lot of HR professionals’ time to investigate their grievances, not every employee who complains is a habitual complainer creating a toxic workplace. Employees will go to great lengths to be heard when they believe their concerns are valid and likely to have a positive impact on the company.
When I worked in California years ago, employees would come to my office to complain about harassment or discrimination. When I asked them to read the dictionary’s definitions of those words, most of the time they didn’t apply to their situations. The workers were in my office for a different reason. Listening intently to an employee’s complaint can mean the difference between success and failure, between a lawsuit and an in-house resolution, or between discovering who cares for the company and who is just going through the motions.
Taking time to listen is the key to a productive workforce. It’s important that managers get to know their employees well, so they know where the worker is on the complaint spectrum. Complaints can range from “complaining just to complain” to “complaining because I care.” When managers truly know their employees, and the employees complain about a co-worker not pulling their weight, processes not being efficient, or bosses not listening or not helping fix problems, they can tell if an employee is someone who cares about the business. Employees have no dog in the fight to make sure the business thrives—except maybe to retain their jobs.
Listen closely, listen intently and don’t take it personally. Maybe the HR team heard the complaints and reported the issues to the front-line manager—but no changes took place. If that’s the case, find out why. Was the issue or concern understood? Does the employee understand the process? Were the employees properly trained?
HR professionals should ask more questions until they have a general understanding of how the team performs, how they work or why the process is failing to yield better production. Discover the root of the complaint. Is it the people, the process or a lack of training?
Employees who complain shouldn’t be shut down by HR or any manager. Not everyone who complains does so to waste people’s time. Most employees genuinely care about where they work and the long-term success of the business. And the best part is that when they know you’re listening and being responsive, the complaining will stop and the communication will begin.
As HR professionals navigate changes in the workforce, it’s important to remember to stop seeing employees merely as complainers.
For HR, hearing all employees equally and paying particular attention to the mental health and wellness of workers is critical.
Janice Torres is corporate human resources manager at Pacer Group in Sarasota, Fla.