When coworkers bring their complaints about each other to their manager


Dear Joan:
My workgroup has been fairly stable over the past several years and in our business (technical consulting) that is a real rarity. The problem is that one of my newest employees has started to cause trouble in my division. She is a good worker and is dedicated about showing up on time and putting in a full day but she is starting to make enemies of her co-workers.


I first learned of this when my other employees started to come to me with complaints. Apparently, she badmouths her co-workers to others. She has been known to spread rumors or to pounce on some personal failing and gossip about it in fairly cruel and insensitive terms.


The situation has gotten much worse recently and her peers don’t want to work with her, cover for her or even do social things with the group, because she is a part of the group. Two people who have been with me for a long time are threatening to leave. I can’t afford to see these good workers leave and yet I also don’t want to lose the new employee because it took me six months to fill her job. Any suggestions?


Problems like these make managers want to turn in their titles. Usually, managers ignore the problem and hope it goes away. Unfortunately, avoiding the problem is not the answer because it continues to simmer until it bubbles over and creates a bigger mess to clean up.


Besides ignoring the problem, there is another classic mistake managers make on this one. They herd all the parties into one room and tell them to hash out their differences. Of course, this just turns up the heat and makes the pot boil even faster. Sometimes it even spoils the stew for good.


So what is the recipe for solving situations like this?


Step 1. Encourage the employee to take responsibility.


When a coworker or employee comes to you with a complaint about a fellow worker, suggest that he/she go back and talk directly with the other person involved. Don’t get sucked into playing mom or dad. The goal is to develop an adult communication environment. If you intervene on behalf of the employee, you will encourage more "tattling" in the future because they will expect you to solve their problems for them. Explain to the person that if you get involved, it is likely to make the situation worse because the other employee will be angry about the supervisor’s involvement.


Step 2. Help the employee with coaching and advice.


Give the complaining employee some help so he or she knows how to deal with the other person. Frequently, the employee has come to you because he or she doesn’t know the words to say. Role play, if necessary. Then schedule a follow up meeting to hear how the conversation went. The employee will feel that you are helping him instead of pushing him away. It also holds the complainer accountable for following through with the plan to meet with the coworker to talk it out.


Step 3. Use first-hand examples when possible.


If the situation worsens and you find that you must get involved, it’s important to use examples of first-hand observations you’ve made about his or her behavior. When you are forced to use second-hand examples, you run a bigger risk of making the person more defensive and creating more ill will among the team. (Example, "Your co-workers have been telling me X, Y, and Z about you…now I want you to go back and get along with everyone.") Obviously, the person will be furious and want to know who said what.

Sometimes the problem is so serious, you will need to get involved immediately. If you don’t have first hand observations, tread lightly. Use words such as, "In her perception this is what happened. I’d like to know your view point."


Step 4. Contracting.


If there is a serious feud going on between two people, I recommend a form of contracting. Meet with each one separately and then together with you. This will allow you more control of the end result. During each one-on-one meeting, ask the person to outline specifically what they would be willing to do to resolve the situation. Ask what the other person could do. Ask them to write everything down (you keep notes, too.). Help each person examine the situation objectively and find specific steps that he or she could commit to. In your joint meeting, ask each of them to share their list of ideas. Make it clear what your expectations are about resolving their differences.


Step 5. Using a facilitator.


When the situation has reached the boiling point and people are threatening to leave, it’s often best if you bring in an outside resource to help. By this time, the manager is often perceived by one of the parties as favoring one side over the other. When I have facilitated situations that have reached a crisis level, I find that my role as an outside facilitator enables me to get past the entrenched emotions and find action steps both parties can live with. Even though the feuding parties view me with suspicion at first, they settle down and try to solve the problem because they recognize that, as an outsider, I am neutral. We set ground rules to keep the discussion respectful and balanced and there is no political maneuvering because I am not their boss.


Employee complaints can be like a black hole, sucking the life out of each day. But if you follow a protocol like this, there’s a good chance you will be able to resolve most situations successfully. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
About Joan Lloyd
Joan Lloyd & Associates provide
FREE subscription to receive Joan's article by email

Email Joan to submit your question for consideration for publication, request permission to reprint an article for distribution, or for information about carrying Joan Lloyd's weekly column in your publication, or on your Internet or Intranet site. Visit JoanLloyd.com to search an archive of more than 1700 of Joan's articles.
© Joan Lloyd & Associates, Inc.