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Managing the Complaining Employee: A Case Study

Managing the Complaining EmployeeThere is always one in the group – and Sarah had him in hers! Alex was really good at his job, but he was constantly complaining about something. Whether it was the time of the weekly team meeting, a customer on the phone, or that someone else in the group wasn’t working as hard as him. Sarah, frankly, had enough of Alex! But she also had enough leadership experience to know that she needed to handle him carefully. She decided that the next time Alex came in to her office to complain, she would handle him a bit differently. She didn’t have to wait long.

Two days later Alex came in to Sarah’s office to complain that the office chairs are really uncomfortable and bothering his back. This time, Sarah was ready. She apologized to Alex for the uncomfortable chair and noted that maybe it was time for new chairs. Alex was caught a bit off guard, but Sarah kept talking. “In fact,” she told Alex, “would you do me a favor and research chairs that would be more comfortable, letting me know the price per chair. We’ll need 6 for each member of the team.” Then, she mentioned, “Feel free to take the afternoon off to visit a few of the local stores that sell office chairs.”  Alex mentioned that he was really busy this afternoon and couldn’t take on the project. Sarah suggested he could go at any time. Alex, however, said he wasn’t sure he was able to do so. Sarah smiled and told Alex, “That’s fine; if at any point you want to move forward with looking at more comfortable chairs, please just let me know and I’d be happy to give you some time off during the day to do a bit of research.”

Three days later Alex came back to Sarah’s office and complained again. This time, however, he complained that Alison was not pulling her weight. Sarah asked him to be specific and he noted that she was gone for 2 hours over lunch, rather than the standard one hour lunch break, and he had to pick up her phone while she was gone. Sarah reminded Alex that Alison had mentioned earlier in the week during the team meeting that she had a doctor’s appointment. Sarah also reminded Alex that the last three times he was out of the office for various reasons, Alison picked up his phone calls and responded to clients on his behalf. Alex mentioned nothing else about the situation, but then again mentioned that his chair was uncomfortable. Sarah asked if he had some time to go do some research on more comfortable chairs. She told him, “Since the chairs are not comfortable for you, I think it would be good for you to be the one to do the research as I want to be sure chairs selected meet your needs for comfort.” Alex said he didn’t have time and left Sarah’s office.

The following week, Alex came in to Sarah’s office and said it was obvious that no one else was going to fix the problems with the chairs being uncomfortable so he would take some time during the week to go do a bit of research on chairs and cost. He also did something he had never done before – he asked Sarah when would be a good time to go so that others in the office were not inconvenienced by his absence. Sarah told him to choose an afternoon good for him.

After he left her office, Sarah set back in her chair. Alex may have turned a corner!


When you have an employee who is a complainer, have them take ownership of their complaints by pushing back and asking them to take the lead to make changes, or asking them what they might do differently to correct the situation.

Tomorrow’s article will share a mini case study on managing the employee who never speaks up but has much to share!

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