7 Tips for Dealing with Chronic Complainers

Don't underestimate the damage a chronic complainer can do to your business and your bottom line.
April 25, 2013

There are days where employees seem to be complaining about everything. In many companies, misery loves company, and it's a big problem for small-business owners. It can bring down employee morale, and affect employee productivity and retention. Ultimately, it will trickle down to the customers—resulting in sub-par service and a decrease in sales.

Negativity is rampant in the workplace. According to Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist for workplace management, 18 percent of U.S. employees are “actively disengaged,” and will complain about their companies. 

This is not about an employee that comes to you infrequently about an issue that bothers them. This is about the chronic complainer, who has something negative to say about everything. Although it might seem easier to ignore them than deal with them, that's the worst thing you can do. Here are the seven steps you need to take to stop the negativity from ruining your company culture.

Schedule a sit-down. Don’t address chronic complainers in the hallway or let them just drop into your office spontaneously to discuss an issue. If you hear an employee complaining, invite them in for a formal meeting when it does not interfere with your own productivity. Set a specific time limit for the meeting that lasts no more than 15 minutes. State this up front and stick to it.

Express empathy. This is the most important step because complainers just want to be heard and typically present a problem that has no short term or easy solution. Being sympathetic to their point of view does not mean you need to agree with them.

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Show appreciation. After listening to the complaint, thank them for bringing the issue to your attention. Make no judgment on the validity of the issue if you believe they are wrong.

No cheering up. Don’t waste time trying to convince the complainer that things are not as bad as they seem or that whatever they are concerned about really isn’t an issue. You will not change their mind set in one short meeting. It's very possible that they may live their life from a “complaining” viewpoint.

Ask for a solution. Require that every complaint come with a realistic solution from the complainer. If it is about another person, ask them to talk directly to them and not involve you. Ask if they can solve the problem themselves without your intervention. Above all, don’t take responsibility for solving their issue.

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Ask if they want your opinion. It may be a surprise that they actually don’t want a solution. Most chronic complainers just want to be heard and are not serious about solving their problem.

Distract them. Get them to move on from the complaint by talking about other things going on in the office. A change of conversation is a way to get the complainer to focus on something else.

These seven tips may not always work, but they will help dissipate the complainer’s ill feelings from spreading to other employees. If the complainer can't stop complaining, it may be time to fire him or her by asking, “Would you be happier working somewhere else?” 

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