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4/1/2004 | 6 MINUTE READ

Dealing with Employee Complaints

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The knowledgeable supervisor sees a gripe for what it really is—a chance to be of help to an employee when that help is most wanted, a golden opportunity to prove to a worker that his problem is management’s problem.


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The knowledgeable supervisor sees a gripe for what it really is—a chance to be of help to an employee when that help is most wanted, a golden opportunity to prove to a worker that his problem is management’s problem. But you can’t expect an employee to believe you care unless you show that you do. This means, first of all, taking the complaint seriously. Whether the worker thinks you’re giving him the evil eye or grumbles about poor working conditions is immaterial. As far as he is concerned, he has a legitimate beef. Minimize it in any way and you immediately compound his grievance because you are, in effect, challenging his judgment.

Recognize, therefore, that when someone comes to you with a complaint, it probably represents weeks, even months, of gnawing doubt, discomfort and anxiety. Resist the temptation to belittle it, no matter how baseless it may be. Remember that, as a supervisor, you enjoy a larger view of things—a view that permits you to see events in a larger context with more perspective. Lacking this wider view, the employee may very well be suffering from tunnel vision, but it isn’t his fault. It is woven into the very fabric of the company structure. In short, be understanding.

This becomes particularly important when you consider that a person with a gripe is in no mood to be reasonable. Not at first. Above all, he craves an audience, someone to whom he can pour out his tale of woe. Therefore, the smart supervisor makes it a point, at the very first hint of trouble, to establish communications with the dissatisfied employee

Many large companies go to considerable expense to encourage two-way communications with their people. They provide printed forms for employee grievances, assuring anonymity, funneling all complaints through one person only (he forwards the complaint—unsigned—to management and sees to it that management’s reply reaches the proper worker) and directing supervisors to take the time to answer all complaints fully.

If the complaint is found to be justified, suitable remedial action is taken.

In one case, an employee was upset because another worker appeared to have been promoted over him unfairly. In view of the firm’s established policy of promoting people of equal merit according to seniority, and the apparent fact that he outranked the promoted man, the employee felt cheated.

He wrote up his grievance and, within 48 hours, received a full explanation: the promoted man had joined the company after the complainant, true, but prior to his employment there he had worked for seven years for a firm that had merged with the parent company. By the terms of the merger, all employees of the merged firm were to be credited for the years they had worked there. In fact, therefore, the promoted man had four years of seniority over the complainer.

Net result of this two-way communication: a satisfied employee who now knows that his company plays fair.

Your personal grievance program can be less formal. A simple invitation to your people to let you know what’s bothering them, together with assurances that no complaint will be held against them, will often do the trick. If there are no takers, assume the initiative. Schedule individual meetings with workers at three or six-month intervals and, behind closed doors, ask them confidentially whether there is anything on their minds.

Such a program may initially meet with some skepticism, but eventually your people will appreciate what you are trying to do and open up. In the process, you will almost certainly learn some things you never knew before and see morale rise.

If They’re Doing Better, Tell ‘Em So

Most supervisors will happily pat an employee on the back when he or she does an outstanding job, but will say little or nothing to recognize any other kind of work.

Yet the human capacity for praise is enormous. Few of us can hear too many good things about ourselves. And the truth is, few people have the opportunity—or the ability—to turn in one outstanding job after another. As a supervisor, therefore, you ought to bear in mind the importance of complimenting an employee on performance improvement.

If one of your people is doing a job better than ever—even if not superlatively well—say so. It will prove that you are paying attention to them and that their efforts are not in vain. It will help to keep motivation and enthusiasm, and therefore morale and productivity, high. It will also make your job a lot easier. And it costs you nothing.

Why You Should Criticize In Private

In order to measure the precise effects of various forms of criticism on human performance, a team of psychologists asked for volunteers at a large university. When they had a sufficient number of subjects, they divided them into seven groups and gave each group the same series of challenging tasks to perform. As each group completed its first set of tasks, it was briefed on its performance. But each group was told in a different way. One group was praised in front of the others; another was ridiculed in private; still another was publicly reprimanded, and so on. The tests were then continued.

In simple chart form, here is a rundown of the performances on that second series of tasks:

Incentive Method Used After First Series of Tests

Public praise
Private reprimand
Public reprimand
Private ridicule
Public ridicule
Private sarcasm
Public sarcasm
Percentage Showing Better Results on Second Series


While public praise was the most effective incentive of all, notice that private criticism produced better results than public criticism. That is, the private reprimand out produced the public reprimand; private ridicule achieved results superior to public ridicule; even sarcasm was far more effective when delivered in private than in public.

The moral for the supervisor who must criticize one of his people would appear to be crystal clear: keep it private.

When Conflict Rears Its Head

It happens in the best of families. Why be surprised when it happens on the job? Occasional disagreements among the people who work for you are inevitable.

The sooner you develop strategies for handling conflict, the better. Try these:

Anticipate it. Big conflicts seldom materialize out of thin air. They are usually preceded by minor skirmishes and other warning signals. If you take the trouble to keep your fingers on your people’s pulse—what’s pleasing them, what’s eating at them—you can usually spot a battle in the making and take appropriate action before it’s too late.

Get the facts. Invite those in conflict to tell you their stories. A lot can be accomplished once a grievance is out in the open. Be sure you are scrupulously fair about getting all sides of the story. Whenever possible, check the facts with a third, disinterested party (without mentioning why you need this information.) Don’t take sides before you have all the facts. If there is even a hint of bias in your behavior, you may lose at one stroke much of what you’ve worked for so hard—your people’s confidence and respect.

Control your temper. No matter how childish the bone of contention may seem to you, it’s obviously considered a serious matter by those in conflict. Demonstrate your respect for their feelings by avoiding flying off the handle. And don’t yield to the temptation of appealing to your authority to get them to cool off. You may blackmail them into suppressing the symptoms, but the basic sickness will remain—and angry, frustrated employees don’t work well together…or alone, for that matter.

Make your decision and stick to it. Once you have all the facts, announce your decision and explain it to both sides. Clarify the reasons for it and let it be known that you intend to abide by it. A referee who allows players to talk him out of a decision is setting a dangerous precedent and letting himself in for a great deal of future grief.