How to Deal With a Chronic Complainer in the Workplace

Three employees gossiping in the office
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Working with a chronic complainer is annoying and exhausting. You know the type—nothing pleases them, and they find fault in management’s every utterance, implicitly suggesting the people in charge are operating with a fatal deficiency of intelligence and common sense.

Managers should work quickly to stop these characters before the damage to morale spreads and threatens the team’s working environment. However, as with every management situation, there are right and wrong approaches for handling difficult people.

Here are some steps you can take to change a complaint culture in your workplace.

Set Clear Expectations for Performance and Engagement

Often, chronic complainers emerge in environments where performance standards and behavior are poorly defined and where no one enforces accountability for actions. If your firm has clearly articulated values, make those an integral part of the culture of your teams or department.

If the values aren't clear, work with team members to establish the values you believe are essential for a healthy working environment. Hold people accountable for following through on actions to remedy the issues. Establish that it is culturally inappropriate to complain behind the scenes.

Chronic complainers survive and thrive in environments where the manager tends to operate at a distance, but struggle to gain traction where the manager is closely involved with team members.

You should try to focus on engaging with your team members and observing behaviors in various settings. You cannot coach or offer constructive feedback without the context that comes from watching and engaging.

Solicit Input and Offer Timely Feedback

Chronic complainers are crafty at remaining below the surface and out of earshot of their managers. However, engaging with all of your team members allows you to focus on individuals and behaviors that detract from morale and performance.

Use straightforward approaches, conversations, formal surveys and 360-degree reviews to build a body of evidence on the group and individual performance. Once you’ve gained context for a team member's complaints, it is critical to engage quickly and constructively with the individual.

Focus initially on coaching the person by providing insights about constant complaining, and how it erodes the working environment. Demonstrate how the behavior affects performance and morale.

Indicate how continuous complaining can damage the individual’s career and showcase positive ways to offer critical input on programs, policies, or activities in the workplace. 

Build a Healthy Work Environment

Creating an environment where motivated employees are encouraged and given the freedom to do their best work is a primary concern for every manager. It starts with hiring the right people and creating a culture of accountability for negative behaviors, including identifying and remedying problems. There’s no room for chronic complainers in a healthy workplace.

Avoid These Approaches

When dealing with chronic complainers, there are two common methods you should avoid:

  1. Attempting to win them over by selling them in advance on your ideas
  2. Ignoring the issue and relegating the steady cadence of complaints to background noise

Both of these approaches are less than ideal. If you go out of the way to neutralize the complainer by making a direct appeal for support, you're only playing into their game. In the mind of the complainer, you legitimize them by seeking approval. More often than not, this exacerbates the problem, giving the complainer a chance to brag to others that their support was actively requested and withheld.

Ignoring or rationalizing this employee's behavior has the effect of minimizing the cumulative damage they create. Unfortunately, in attempting to justify the behavior, you damage your credibility with the broader team. Instead of rationalizing or excusing the behavior, focus on eliminating it.

Try to use a direct approach by coaching first, counseling second, and requiring accountability for behavior each step of the way. If none of this works, it's time to escalate.

Recognize When It's Time to Escalate

If behaviors do not change, it's time to move from coaching to counseling. ​Coaching is designed to elicit positive change in behaviors by offering guidance, encouragement, and specific action steps.

Counseling offers clear feedback that the behaviors are unacceptable and identifies the implications of failing to change them. When counseling, you can help yourself by:

  • Working with your human resources manager to structure a counseling approach and plan.
  • Ensuring you document all of the prior feedback, coaching and counseling.
  • Presenting the employee with a performance improvement program that clearly defines the outcomes for improving or failing to do so.
  • Ensuring you follow up with the employee at the established times, and measuring their performance only against the agreed-upon parameters.

While chronic complainers seem harmless on the surface, the damage may become irreparable in the long run. You owe it to your team, your firm, and yourself to remove toxic behavior from the workplace.

Realize There Is Good and Bad Potential

The chronic complainer infects the workplace culture by spreading negativity and creating doubt in team members' minds. For managers striving to implement a new program or policy, this subtle but aggressive behavior gets in the way of driving positive change.

Becoming involved in your employees' daily work and routines is essential because it helps you stay in tune with their issues, accomplishments or valid concerns. You might have complainers who don't know how to address the issues they see.

They could have had good ideas in the past, but have never been listened to—so they complain to be heard. Addressing complaint culture before it causes problems prevents workplace disruption—it might also help you turn a complaining employee with unique ideas back into a productive one.

You never know until you get involved and determine whether complaints are valid or not.