Ask HR | Handling Chronic Employee Complainers

Q. I have a pretty tight-knit crew that has worked together for about one year. The trouble is, I have one employee who is constantly complaining to their supervisor and me, the owner, and to the team. I have tried to handle some of their concerns, but it seems that their job has become nothing but a source of ongoing negative remarks, complaints, and issues. My crew has even started to complain about the complainer, and I am afraid that other employees may quit! What can I do? Do you have any suggestions on how I can handle this employee? 

A. Just about every business owner, HR manager, supervisor, or co-worker has worked with this type of employee. As you’ve mentioned, it looks like you’ve attempted to address their issue. Employee complaints should always be listened to, because a genuine HR liability issue may lie within those complaints!  However, if the employee’s negative attitude and constant complaining starts to permeate the worksite, it can tarnish team morale. When employee workplace behavior is centered on chronic complaining, the appropriate HR phrase covering this behavior is called “negative employee attitude.”  Here is a set of recommended steps you can take to address the problem: 

Start by setting up an official grievance meeting: No one says you have to accept the negative attitude, but you do have to respect it, and listen to it. Unhappy employees believe their concerns haven’t been heard, so it’s essential to allow them to express their concerns in an individual, one-on-one session. Ask them to make a list of their grievances and complaints. Then, have the employee rank them according to how each complaint interferes with their ability to perform their job.  

Ask the employee to suggest solutions: Review the list of complaints and ask the employee, “what do you think should be done about it?” Let the employee tell you a possible solution for each issue listed. If some can be amended according to their suggestions, make out an action plan and then arrange a future meeting to review and acknowledge the resolution.  

Set a complaint boundary: After making a fair attempt in addressing their concerns, communicate to the employee that their continued negative attitude compromises the team’s productivity and will not be tolerated. Explain to the employee that the situation will not be changing. Ask the employee if they can maintain their position—without further complaints—after all efforts have been made to better the situation.  

Set a behavior standard to continue employment: A company should never terminate or retaliate against an employee for lodging a complaint! Rather, communicate your expectations for future behavior and clarify company procedures for registering future complaints. Ensure your complaint procedure includes more than one way for an employee to report a complaint and provide a brief overview of how your company will address the complaint. As an employer, you need to listen to your employees, help them be productive, and motivate them to grow or change for the better. Employers must remain open to the possibility that the chronic complainer can improve their attitude. If the employee cannot change their behavior and refuses to function in their job if the situation does not change, you may consider progressive discipline. If the negative behavior continues, you may have to terminate the employee to maintain staff morale and team productivity.  

Contact Cardinal today for assistance updating or creating your complaint procedure or progressive discipline policy.