Today (27 October) is, according to LinkedIn, “National Cranky Co-Worker Day” (yes, there really is a day for anything and everything). Take to social media and you’ll see tongue-in-cheek posts tagging the office whinger, as well as numerous articles on how to deal with such co-workers.
All seems to be in good fun, right? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, we Brits are a nation of complainers. We love it. Traffic, the weather, long queues, the weather, the government, and the weather, are just some of our favourite topics. There is probably a reason; some suggest that humans bond more quickly and more deeply over shared dislikes than shared interests, and some studies suggest that complaining, as opposed to stewing on negative feelings, might be good for you.
However, the fact that we have a whole day dedicated to our grumpy colleagues suggests that something might be afoot in the workplace. For employees, complaining may be a way of dealing with day-to-day stresses and it must be remembered that everyone has their off-days, but chronic moodiness can lead to a toxic workplace environment. Bad moods are contagious and ultimately having one (or more) employee who is constantly annoyed will only serve to make the workplace a stressful and unhappy environment – or worse, breed a culture of constant complaining.
For employers, dealing with such employees is difficult. There are 5 potentially fair reasons for dismissal and ‘won’t stop whinging’ unfortunately isn’t one of them. So what can you do?
Are the issues genuine?
Firstly, you need to work out if the complaints are genuine. I would never advise starting from the position that an employee is just being difficult. Even if you can’t resolve their issue, hearing them out and giving them an opportunity to air their concerns might be all it takes. Many ‘cranky co-workers’ feel the need to whinge because they don’t feel as though they are being listened to.
It is also very likely that their complaint is genuine (e.g. overwork due to lack of support) and can be resolved in an informal and amicable way – win, win.
Allow constructive feedback
Many complaints can be avoided by allowing regular and timely opportunities to discuss any workplace concerns can provide an constructive outlet. Further this approach can save you time. If you find yourself avoiding the kitchen in case they corner you by the biscuit tin to moan about Sandra cooking fish in the microwave again (or worse still, wanting to complain about pay), or dread picking up the phone to particular employee because you know it’ll be a half-hour rant, then having a monthly 1:1 or departmental meeting in which such issues should be raised may be enough to quell the regular bitching sessions.
Issues between employees
What if it’s not you bearing the brunt of Mr-or-Ms-Cranky’s bad mood? It may that your employee is nice as pie to you, but you’ve either heard or witnessed them be moody/rude/snappy/constantly complaining to their colleagues. Again, you need to work out if this is a problem. It is a fact of life that employees whinge (normally about their boss – yes even you). If it seems to be a method of bonding, and no one seems bothered by it, there probably isn’t much you need to – or can – do.
However where the ‘bad atmosphere’ is creating a problem, leading to disagreements, or upsetting colleagues, you probably need to step in. If a formal grievance is raised, the issue of ‘bad attitude’ (where one party is at fault) can be dealt with by a disciplinary process. In these circumstances, bad attitude would be an issue of conduct.
If no formal complaints have been made or the issue is ‘bad but not that bad’, then having regular opportunities for the Office Whinger to air their complaints to the appropriate members of the organisation and in a constructive manner may curb their need to complain or lash out at other times.
Use your appraisals
Another way in which to deal with a ‘problem employee’ is to discuss your concerns in appraisals. This can be done in a constructive way, without the formality of a disciplinary process. Using the ‘compliment sandwich’ usually helps to soften the blow of the criticism e.g,
“your work is very good and we’re very appreciative of your help on X project, but I have seen at times your interactions with others have been negative. For example (N.B. always use examples where you can), I noticed you shout at Brian the other day when he asked you for a pen. He seemed very upset by that. I would not want such interactions to distract from your excellent work.”
Sometimes the issue may not be one moody employee but simply two or more employees who don’t get along. Such clashes can be hugely disruptive to the rest of the workforce and the business as a whole. In this case, the first solution I would suggest would be workplace mediation in which an independent third party attempts to facilitate a resolution between the employees involved.
If no resolution is possible, it may be possible to dismiss one or both employees. This should, however be a last resort and a tribunal would need to be satisfied that the conflict was causing substantial disruption to the business, and that alternatives to dismissal had been exhausted.
Don’t reward bad behaviour
Difficult employees are often ones who shout the loudest, and as a result often get the most attention. If one employee is constantly saying how busy they are, even if they’re not busier than anyone else, the discussion around pay-review time may revolve around how hard they’re working. This can be demotivating for the rest of your team. This is part of the reason it is so important to assess whether the complaints are genuine, for example if the complaint is about workload, do they actually have more on than anyone else?
It may also be tempting to try and ‘head off the problem’ by telling the employee about new innovations before anyone else to get them to buy into it rather than complaining. However, again for the rest of your staff, this is going to seem like special treatment.
If the complaints are genuine, try not to give special treatment to difficult members of staff rather than dealing with the issue in a constructive manner.
So what if you’re well beyond a single, difficult employee or small group of whingers? For some businesses, constant complaints, sniping at each other and general bad attitudes can become so pervasive that it becomes the workplace culture. This can lead to difficulty retaining good staff, and an impact of productivity. In some extreme cases, it may cause reputational damage.
Unfortunately there is no quick solution here. You would need to conduct a cultural review to assess the issue as well as define what you want to culture of the business to be. It is then a long process of slowly working towards that by changing attitudes, dealing with ‘bad apples’ and making good hiring decisions.
If you have any queries regarding employment issues, please do not hesitate to give Charlotte Braham a call on 01494 893529.