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How to Manage Employee Complaints

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It’s a given in any business that at some point, employees will have a complaint. But even still, knowing how to deal with those complaints can be a difficult task for many business operators.

“Really, the days of the old-fashioned suggestion box are pretty well gone,” says Lori Kleiman, a veteran human resources professional and president of HR Topics, a human resources consulting company that helps small businesses with HR updates, best practices and aligning HR with your business.

In smaller shops, Kleiman says, a complaint can be difficult to voice and even if you have a so-called “open-door policy,” that doesn’t guarantee that employees feel comfortable taking advantage of that. Letting those complaints fester, or not doing anything about them, is a breeding ground for a poor culture, however. Kleiman discusses steps for effectively dealing with and resolving employee complaints.

The first—and most important—aspect of this process is being able to differentiate real systemic employee complaints that require business owner attention versus the squeaky wheel that simply wants you to pay attention to them. That’s a lot of what I see small business people struggling with. First, give thought to the person coming in. If they’re someone who rarely comes in and is asking for some of your time, that is an immediate light bulb moment. On the other hand, if they’re coming in all the time and complaining about everything, it’s like the old story of crying wolf.

What I mostly look for right off the bat is: Is this something that matters to our business or is this an employee comfort type of situation? If they’re talking about, say, office furniture or personal matters, you likely want to listen, but it may not be a drop-everything-and-deal-with-it-at-that-moment type of issue.

Next, it’s important to understand that an open-door policy doesn’t mean, “Come in and bother me at your convenience.” An open-door policy can still mean that you have to follow a procedure. That procedure could be that employees have to set an appointment to have a conversation or talk to their supervisor first. You could also set an open-door policy where employees can shoot an email to leadership at any time. However, if it impacts your customers, cost of doing business or ethics, I would make an exception and drop everything to listen to what this person has to tell you.

Let’s say an employee comes with a valid complaint. The first step is to listen to the employee and show that you’re genuinely concerned and taking it seriously. Next, get multiple inputs. The way one employee feels is not the way everybody might feel. Even when it’s your most trusted employee, still go to other people and just ask, “What do you think about this or that?” If you have managers, bring them in to see if they have the same opinion. The first step should be getting corroborative evidence to make sure that it’s an issue for a lot of people.

The next thing is getting other people whom it impacts involved in solving the problem. They’re usually the ones with the best ideas. Just ask them point blank: This issue is not going away, so what are some ways we can make it easier for you? A lot of it is trying not to have all the answers as an executive and instead deferring to employees that might be able to come up with a very easy solution.

Finally, it’s very important that you document and follow up with the employee. Even if the answer is, “I gave it some thought and I decided not to act on what you presented,” that’s fine. Ignoring it and not circling back is where employees get very frustrated. It’s really about making it a full loop so that employees know that when they come to you, a “no” answer is acceptable but no answer is unacceptable.

The process does differ with a squeaky wheel, however. Sometimes you can tell in your gut that they might be right this time, but otherwise, I would do very little with that squeaky wheel. First, push it back on them. Tell them to talk to their manager and coworkers first and see if they can solve the problem for themselves. Weekly department meetings can also be an outlet to voice those problems by ending with the question, “Are there any other things someone wants to talk about?”

If that stops working and they keep coming in repeatedly with complaints, then it’s time to sit them down and say, “It’s clear you’re not very happy here. I just can’t have you coming to me every few days with a new complaint. This is how we do business here and if this isn’t somewhere you want to work, let’s be open and honest with each other.”

And give yourself permission to actually terminate someone. When you allow the substandard performer to stay on your team, they tend to bring the whole productivity of your team down.

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