If you are getting more complaints from your employees it may cause you concern that something has gone systemically wrong in your company.
In fact, an increase in employee complaints is not always a bad thing. According to Rachel from SHRM-CP, “In and of themselves, complaints can be a good thing because they inform you about matters that may have escaped your notice and they indicate that your employees trust you to resolve those matters.” An increase in complaints can actually mean that your employees have become more comfortable talking about their issues and are more likely to tell you rather than vent to each other or, worse, on social media.
So, how do you make the best use of employee complaints?
Here are a few tips:
Train Managers to Gain Trust
Overall, you want employees to trust their managers. In fact, 80% of employees would take a pay cut to get a more sympathetic or empathetic employer or manager.
An employee who trusts their manager will come to them with problems rather than going to somebody else. The manager must then be trained in how to deal with complaints without dismissing them.
Provide a Mechanism for Complaints about Supervisors
However, sometimes the employee’s problem may be with their manager or direct supervisor. It’s important to ensure that employees have a high level of trust in HR, a department often seen as something of an enemy. Increasing trust and utilizing well-designed technology can help by providing a smooth, seamless experience for dealing with HR needs.
Allowing people to submit HR requests and complaints from their phone can also help make things easy for employees who have a problem they can't bring to their supervisor.
Along related lines, making sure that IT offers good tech support can be helpful too.
Ensure All Complaints are Taken Seriously
Nobody wants to receive a complaint, but in the post-Enron era and the age of #MeToo, it’s vital that complaints are taken seriously and treated empathetically even if they are eventually dismissed. If you are unable to take action then, at the very least, ensure that the person complaining feels as if they have been treated fairly and not blamed (unless there is very solid evidence the complaint is malicious). All complaints should be recorded so that patterns of employee behavior can be observed. One complaint against a person might not be enough to take action, but three or four may be.
Workplace harassment complaints are rising not because there is more harassment, but because people are less afraid to speak out about it. “Hazing” and workplace discrimination have long been a thing, but people are less willing to put up with it these days, as they should be.
Avoid tossing out clichés and platitudes, but address each complaint individually and work out what their needs are. Also learn to be a good listener, make eye contact, and stay calm even if you are the target of the complaint. Try not to interrupt them even if they are wrong or you feel attacked.
Try to Resolve Complaints Quickly
An unresolved complaint will fester and may spread. You need to solve the problem quickly. Make sure that employees complain promptly by ensuring that there are no threats or retaliation. Avoid any actions that support a culture of “it’s wrong to snitch” (remember that employee theft costs U.S. companies more than $50 billion a year). Not every complaint has to be addressed, but even if you have to turn an employee down, do so with courtesy, promptly, and without trivializing the grievance. Consider whether there is another way to solve the problem.
At the same time, you should not resort to your first knee jerk response. Arrange another meeting for the following day or so. This will allow you to think about the feedback you have given. Fast responses are often off the mark, emotional, and unhelpful. This also gives you time to get over any feelings of personal hurt. For example, if the employee’s complaint is that you are micromanaging them, then an initial reaction is likely to be somewhere between “No, I’m not” and “We need to make sure it’s done right.” The former response comes over as denial, the latter is more micromanaging. Instead, take time to think about whether you really are hovering and need to take a step back, or to consider ways to ensure things are done right that look less like micromanaging and more like trust.
Consider How Complaints Relate to Procedures
Particularly if you are getting a lot of complaints about the same thing, the complaints may be masking a problem with procedures and protocols that runs deep and has yet to be properly resolved.
What the employee thinks they are complaining about (it taking forever to get into the building in the morning) may reflect a greater problem with excessive security or, perhaps, with building systems. It might be that the issue is not “The security guards are so slow” but “You need to update your access control systems.” Look at every possible root of repeated complaints.
Keep Things Oriented Towards Solutions Not Retaliation
In the case of harassment complaints there may not be a solution that does not end with somebody leaving the company. But with most interpersonal complaints revenge is less productive than finding a way for the people to work together. Solutions may range from moving desks around to improved training. For example, putting the annoying knuckle cracker further away from the person who prefers silence and closer to the person who always sits there with their headphones on may solve issues for everyone and improve the general peace.
Finding constructive ways to keep all of your employees happy is always better than yelling at somebody to stop their annoying habit. If somebody hates their office, it’s more constructive to find somebody willing to switch than to either make them put up with it or move somebody else in there who might have the same problems.
Above all, the most important thing to remember is not to ignore employee complaints. Instead, complaints should be considered feedback and opportunities to improve. The supervisor who is annoying to employees who then has to deal with customers may be driving them away too. The lack of an extra microwave in the lunch room for those people who insist on cooking fish is likely reducing morale and increasing conflict.
Employees need to feel that their complaints and feedback are being taken seriously and using them to improve procedures creates a culture in which nobody is afraid to complain.
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