In every organization, there are those employees who are very comfortable coming into the HR office and sharing every detail of what is going on with the other employees. These are often referred to as “serial complainers” who revel in drama and like to make every incident or interaction seem bigger than it is. Although these employees can take up a lot of time, there are instances when they can be very helpful. Therefore, it is important to determine quickly if the complainer just wants to gossip, or is providing valuable information and feedback that the employer should know. I other words, is this a complainer or a complainant? Let’s look at the difference.

Complainers: These are individuals who find great self-importance in rallying the troops.  They are looking for validation in their thoughts and actions, thinking others will then see them as leaders. Psychologists have determined that their purpose is to get others to agree and sympathize with what they say, allowing them to represent the masses and take a stance for change. Unfortunately, other employees will often just agree with the complainer to get them to go away and avoid conflict, causing them to be involved in an issue they would rather avoid.

Complainants: These are individuals who often represent themselves, but at times may also speak for a group of employees. A complainant may be notifying the company of a single incident or an ongoing problem, and may not even be the victim of the issue. They have a primary purpose of notifying management and human resources of items that need to be addresses or changed in the workplace in order to avoid potential negative impact. This impact may be employees quitting, reduced production, a hostile work environment or even a potential lawsuit.

The challenge for business owners and HR professionals comes at the intersection of staying informed and an actionable complaint. Sometime it can be difficult to tell the difference. An employee may come to management or human resources often because they are creating drama and gossiping, or because they truly are a trusted voice of the employees. Although it is a best practice to keep an open door and allow employees to talk about issues in the workplace, these two types of employees should be addressed differently, and therefore it is important to make a determination of who you are speaking with as quickly as possible.

Here are 5 tips that are essential to determining if you are dealing with a complainant or a complainer.

  1. Begin asking questions early in the conversation to get a feel for the source of the information.
    • Are you speaking for yourself or on behalf of others?
    • May I have the name of another employee who saw, heard or experienced this?
    • What do you believe to be the cause or reasons behind these actions or incidents?
  2. Talk to the manager, and if possible other employees, to determine how they feel about the employee and the complaint.
    • Casually ask if they are aware of the circumstance or incident that is happening in their department. Most often they will say no.
    • Ask if they are aware of why an employee may have come forward with a complaint or accusation. This is where you will likely get the information you need. Quite often, the response goes something like this. “Oh, you must be talking about Sara. She is always complaining about something, Half the time I don’t even listen. I just nod my head so she will go away and let me get my work done.
  3. Determine if this is a continuation of a previous complaint, or a new issue.
    • If this is an ongoing issue, it is very important to explain to the employee why the issue has not been resolved. This may include a conversation on the fact that the management team must make appropriate business decisions and take action based on the needs of the company and the employees. While not everyone is happy with the choices made, there are reasons that things are done a certain way, and continuing to complain will not change the circumstances. This may be followed up with a suggestion that the employee come to you not only with a complaint, but with a workable suggestion on how the issue can be resolved.
  4. Consider whether the information provided could be a violation of policy or the law.
    • Is this related to harassment or a hostile work environment?
    • Is this a potential discrimination violation?
    • Does this affect the safety or security of employees, customers, vendors or the public?
  5. Stop the conversation immediately if it is clear that the information is gossip, personal opinion or relates to an employee’s medical/psychological condition that should not be shared at work.
    • This is best done by stating that the conversation must stop. That you need to do the same for employee being discussed as you would for the complainer, and let his or her personal business remain private.

The key is to examine the information with an objective mindset. Even a serial complainer can occasional bring forth a legitimate complaint. (Read Does this require an investigation?) But this does not mean you must or should listen to constant complaining with no merit. You likely are dealing with a complainer if,

  • the employee is bringing forth issues that only pertain to his or her personal preference or keeps stating that “everyone feels this way”;
  • other employees and managers see this as a pattern;
  • the employee continues to complain about an issue that has already been addressed or will not be addressed for business reasons;
  • he or she continuously brings forth issues that are not a violation of company policy or law; and/or
  • he or she seems to be excited to have information and want to share it with everyone who will listen.

Tips for dealing with a complainer.

  1. Inform the employee you are on a deadline and suggest that you set an appointment to meet. Often after they think about it for a bit, they decide it is not that important.
  2. Remind the employee that in your role you have to fully investigate a complaint that violates the law or company policy. If he or she just needs suggestions on how to deal with a situation, you would be happy to provide general guidance.
  3. If the complaints continue without merit or substance, remind the employee that it is part of his or her job to find a way to perform all aspect of the position, which includes working professionally with other employees. They don’t need to like each other, they just need to be kind and respectful. Failure to meet that requirement, providing false information or sharing the personal information of another employee could expose him or her to disciplinary action.

As a final note, remember that it is also your job to treat all employees fairly. So take a momentary self-check to ensure you are not automatically categorizing an employee as a complainer…unless they have earned it.