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Handling complainers: every office has one, but what should you do?

By Steve M. Cohen  bio

Handling an “office complainer” may be one of the most overlooked management issues in the books.

We all know a complainer—someone who never seems to be happy with the way things are, and often attributes to others their perceived woes and the perceived woes of any organization they’re involved with.

This can be a minor issue. In fact, most of us are complainers at some point, and letting off steam this way is pretty normal, though not particularly productive. As an office manager, however, you need to be on the alert for several pitfalls surrounding this behavior.

First, make sure you don’t ignore the complainer. If they voice a legitimate complaint and you ignore it, it could be disastrous. Anything regarding bullying or harassment, even an overhanging limb in the parking lot, could represent a legitimate concern and a liability if ignored by you and the organization. Don’t automatically write off complaints by saying, “Oh, that’s just so-and-so and he/she always complains.”

Indeed, one tactic to cover the liability issue and perhaps to reduce chronic complaints is to require action by the complainer. Ask them to put the complaint in writing or simply present a formal, vocal complaint. You may quickly find that the complaint is suddenly less of a priority. Another option would be to place them in charge of finding a solution and applying it, if that is appropriate. “Yes, you’re right; the copy machine is not working well. Contact the vendor and work out a solution. Keep me posted…”

You should also be alert to the possibility that a chronic complainer has one of several issues that are essentially psychological. Diagnosing these is beyond my expertise, and probably yours, but someone who is never satisfied with themselves and/or their surroundings may have issues beyond your ability to deal with them.

In most cases, you and others in the office will probably learn to deal with this. Some people simply need to vocalize more than others and dealing with that is simply part of dealing with all of our individual differences. However, you may also need to consider whether the complaints represent a serious issue. Is there a pattern to the comments? Are they directed at a single person or group? If anything like that is the case, you may have something else.

I’ve labeled one example of this as the “office sniper,” someone who covertly attacks someone (usually management). They may use thinly veiled humor or other oblique attacks, but if you examine the message they send overall, it is an attack and should be dealt with. In most cases, it’s pretty easy: Flush them out in the open, identify the pattern of their criticism, and confront it.

You might need to be very direct: “What your statement says to me is that you don’t like working here. Is that what you meant?” Most of the time the answer will be, “I was just joking” or “Can’t you take a joke?” Then you can pounce by saying: “I didn’t consider it a joke.”

It’s impossible to outline every possible example of complainers, but a few moments of thought if you face this is a good idea before acting. In some cases, a complainer may simply be an analytical staff member who needs more responsibility. Or, they could be someone so disengaged from their job and the office that they need to move (or be moved). Keep these thoughts in mind the next time you find yourself in “whine country.”

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., CMC is President/Partner of Labor Management Advisory Group, Inc. and HR Solutions: On-Call, both based in Kansas City, MO. For more information, visit or call (913) 927-0229.

The above information is shared by a guest contributor and does not necessarily reflect the views of Medical Office Manager.









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