What Should Employees Do When Managers Ignore Their Complaints?

See How to Address the Four Types of Common Employee Complaints

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A reader asked the following question: “What should employees do if managers ignore their complaints?”

There isn't a single answer to that question because the response depends on what you mean by ignoring and what you mean by a complaint. You can use four types of common employee complaints to respond to these questions.

First, what is meant by ignoring?

If you go to your boss and you say, “The process we use to track inventory is outdated and unusable,” and your boss mumbles something and doesn't do anything to fix the inventory process, that's ignoring you.

But, if you make the same complaint, and she responds, “I know, but in order to update the system we need $200,000 and finance won't authorize that,” she's not ignoring you. She's not changing anything as you requested, but she's not ignoring you. In fact, she responded—maybe it wasn't the answer you wanted to hear—but she definitely responded.

Often people assume that if the boss doesn't do what you've asked them to do, you're being ignored. Bosses aren't obligated to make every change suggested by an employee and, in fact, many times they can't for reasons you don't, or don't want to, understand.

Types of Complaints Employees Make

Now, consider what is a complaint. There are four categories of complaints, and with each category, you should take a different tactic when you're ignored.

Legal Complaints

If you complain to your boss that Jane is sexually harassing you, or that Steve is violating OSHA regulations, and your boss doesn't launch an investigation, you need to escalate the issue. You can either report these problems to your boss's boss or to the HR department.

Many companies have an anonymous tip line where you can report legal violations, and you can do that as well.

If going these routes doesn't fix the problem, you can always report it to the relevant government agency.

But, keep in mind, just because you complain about something, doesn't mean it's necessarily a violation of the law. For instance, if your sexual harassment complaint about Jane is, “Jane asked me out on a date,” and that's it, there's nothing for your boss to do, other than say, “Okay, thanks.”

It's only a violation if Jane won't take no for an answer or treats you differently because you said no. Likewise, what you may see as a violation of a government regulation may not actually be one—you often don't know what goes on behind the scenes.

Process Complaints

Going back to the example of the inventory process that is outdated. You think it could be done better. If you just say, “The inventory process stinks!” expect your manager to ignore you. 

That's not a proper complaint, that's just whining. If you come to your manager and you say, “The inventory process stinks, so I think we should do A, B, and C,” that's a reasonable complaint. If your manager doesn't implement your suggestions it doesn't mean that he's ignoring you or that your suggestion is not workable.

Often, you only know part of the system. You see your part, and that's it. So, the company may not implement your ideas because, frankly, your ideas won't work—for all of the parties and processes affected. Or they cost too much. Or, they just don't want to—and this is a legitimate reason, too. Seriously.

That may seem ridiculous, but it's not. The company can’t implement everything employees suggest. You've said your piece, and you've offered a solution, and then you can leave it.

This isn't the type of suggestion you escalate. Your manager won't appreciate it and you won't look good.

Workload Complaints

Don't assume that your manager knows precisely what you do all day. Your manager may not know that you're completely overburdened while your coworker is watching videos on YouTube all day.

If you're overworked, take it to your manager like this, “Right now I have A, B, C, and D, on my plate. I don't see any reasonable way to get them all done by Friday. Which ones have top priority?” If your manager says, “Do all of it,” you can ask for help.

If your manager doesn't offer any help or ignores you, then you need to take a few steps.

  • One, evaluate whether you're truly realistic about the amount of work you have. Are you spending too much time goofing off as well?
  • Two, prioritize yourself. You need to figure out what the most important task is and do that first.
  • Three, decide whether you want to live this life.

No one forces you to work in a particular job. If the workload doesn't fit with how you want to live your life, start hunting for a new job. When you find one, quit your job and leave.

However, keep in mind that if you want to progress in your career, you probably won't do so working 40 hours a week. People who have climbed to the top of the career ladder usually put in a lot more hours than the people at the bottom. It's fine if you're happy where you are, but don't complain about not getting promoted when you're walking out the door no later than 5:02 every evening.

Other Types of Complaints

These encompass everything from, “My coworker smells” to “I hate my job.” These are complaints that you need to stop making. If your coworker smells, you can either bring it up to your coworker directly, (“I don't really know how to say this, but I've noticed you might want to shower more,”) or let it go.

Your manager has noticed that this person smells bad as well, and hasn't done anything, so bringing it up to your manager won't really change anything. For “I hate my job,” your boss doesn't want to hear it. It's not constructive and it's just whining. Find a new job rather than complaining.

The basic rule of complaining is that if you can offer a solution you can bring up the complaint. Otherwise, it's just whining. Complaining about rules, your reasonable workload or your coworker’s bad habits is just whining. Whining isn't really tolerated and your boss should ignore you.

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