how to address junior employees loudly complaining about their work

A reader writes:

I work for a small company where all of our junior-level employees (all in our early 20s) are encouraged to act as a unit — e.g. we communicate among ourselves to split work, address administrative things, and fix issues before going to more senior staff. We also manage a number of semi-mundane, ongoing tasks that are often not fun at all but part of the job.

Two employees recently joined at this junior level, one starting a couple of months after the other. This is relevant because the newer employee was referred by the first after they worked together as interns elsewhere and they obviously have a friendly rapport. The issue: They have both been complaining, LOUDLY, about those mundane tasks I mentioned. We have an open office environment and people as far away as two or three desks down — including more senior employees — can hear their complaints.

It’s obviously unprofessional and needs to be addressed, but do I address this with them as a fellow junior employee? Do I pull them aside and say, “I’ve overheard some of your comments recently about the work, about not enjoying it or being frustrated with it. I understand that some of the work is not as interesting as other work, but people senior to you can hear those complaints and it doesn’t come off well.” Or, do I tell their managers (one of whom is also mine)?

Either or both.

It would be perfectly appropriate to talk to them and say something along the lines of what you suggested. (I want to tell you to also add that it’s unpleasant to hear and doesn’t come across well to the rest of you either — it’s not just the senior people they should be concerned about — but you’ll probably maintain better relations with them, and maybe have more of an impact, if you stick to the framing you suggested.)

But it would also be completely appropriate to talk to your/their manager about it, framed as something like, “I feel awkward about this, but I keep hearing loud and regular complaints from Jill and Jane about their work. Since they’re still new, I thought it might be something you’d want to know is happening.”

Some people will tell you to mind your own business and not mention this to your manager unless it’s impacting your own work, but honestly, this is the type of thing that a good manager would want to get a discreet heads-up about, as long as it’s delivered professionally … especially because it’s something that she might not be able to observe on her own unless she happens to walk by at exactly the right time. You wouldn’t keep pushing the issue after that, of course; her take on it might differ from yours, but as long as you’re okay with that, most good managers will be grateful to be filled in discreetly on something that might be a problem, and then left to decide how and whether to handle it on their own.

By the way, if you feel like it, you could consider trying to get to know these employees separately from each other (ask them to grab coffee with you occasion, or something like that — but do it separately, not with both of them together) and see if you can’t model better behavior for them when they’re away from each other. They’re probably each reinforcing each other’s negative viewpoint and behavior, and getting regular exposure to someone who makes a point of reinforcing more positive, professional behavior might be helpful too.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. Lisa

    We are dealing with a similar issue, but really its just a loud employee. She is new, and annoying. We are an open office environment, so when she talks to people across the office cubes its distracting. She squeaks, and does little hops in her heels, thump thump thump like racing across, she cried a few times when other people challenged her ideas running from the office one of those times, and its only her 3rd month. The biggest thing is 3pm. Right around 3 pm rolls around, she starts acting like the day is over and talking, joking, annoying, announcing “the day is almost over y’all” meanwhile I have at least 6 people of the 11 that work in the cube area IM-ing me ‘make her stop’ / ‘i wish she would shut up’ / ‘i have a deadline, god’ – Most people leave at 5:30 but others like me are 9 – 6 so that 3 hours left in the day, and she is acting like its time for a beer. the other day, I was so annoyed at her loudness that I took my ear buds out and, I gave her director (its only the 2 of them in the dept) a stern look. I learned later that he spoke to her right after that, but the behavior hasn’t stopped.

      1. Lisa

        Well her manager literally just spoke to her on Monday the same day I gave him that look. I guess he took her out of the office and spoke to her in the hallway. I wondered why she announced loudly ‘sorry for MAKING A SCENE y’all’ waved her hands in the air too when she came back. Her apology was more like she didn’t buy that anyone was being bothered. Its only 4 days later, but nothing has changed. We are worried that she will treat our summer 1/2 day fridays the same way, and the boss could revoke them based on her behavior which she makes it look like we are all engaging in conversation with her when most want her to stop being so loud.

        1. SW

          She may need to hear it from one of you. Right now she probably thinks her boss is just being paranoid.

        2. Artemesia

          I’d be more forceful about the communication up. Focus on how distracting her behavior is and that people are very frustrated that she makes it difficult to get work done when she checks out early. Perhaps a couple of you could provide the feedback to the boss.

          She needs to be fired. What a shame it would be if the rest of you have more restrictive policies put in place in an attempt to manage the one problem employee. This is the common ploy of bad managers. Since your manager talked to her, she may not be a terrible manager, but she needs feedback from you all that it isn’t working and it is interfering with your work.

    1. just a reader2

      Before I IM’d anyone, gave anyone a look, or did anything else, I’d say something to the offenders. But that’s me — I’m very experienced (you can read old into that) and I’ve seen this behavior before. It just gets worse unless you manage it.

      Being willing to take the lead on little things like this makes your manger think you might be ready to handle more responsibility. But that’s your call to show your manager or not.

    2. Cassie

      We have a newbie who is a lite version of your newbie. She’s gotten into this banter thing with one of the other staffers but their comments to each other are downright rude (to anyone else listening). Stuff like “why don’t you do some work for a change?” and the like – I guess they’re joking? but it still is too loud and obnoxious for a professional environment.

      Recently, she’s been making comments to or about me, while I’m just plugging away at my computer. She’ll comment about how hard I work or whatever, and I guess she’s trying to get people to pay attention to her. I try to ignore her (pretend I don’t hear) but she does it often. I was just talking to a coworker about this and he thought maybe she’s just trying to be friendly. Okay, maybe, but talking to the back of someone’s head is not friendly! Am I supposed to turn around and acknowledge that “yes, I am working hard”?

      1. Emma

        +1. I hate being the recipient of “working so hard” comments because they rarely reflect badly on the person asking – which it should reflect badly on them! – but on the target. I’ve had them directed at me and I too am at a loss at how to respond.

        Reminds me of how people get mad at the lover of a cheating partner instead of the partner!

    3. kryzstoff

      if you can, just find ways to ignore their behaviour — when it comes down to it, if a small business is looking to lays of staff it often becomes an emotional rather than rational response and the squeaky wheels get removed/replaced first, apparently to improve office morale (unless of course, they are related to the directors it won’t happen that way).

  2. Stacie

    Hmm…do you all take on the mundane tasks or is it something that gets pushed down to the newest/least senior people? If it’s the former, I would probably pull each aside separately and discuss how they’re hurting morale for the team and their reputation, and give them some advice, maybe how the rest of you handle it. If it’s the latter, I’d probably talk to them more in a “this is sometimes how the world works so suck it up and it’ll be gone when someone new comes in.” I would wait to discuss with their manager until after discussing with them if there is no improvement.

  3. JR

    I know AAM has said this before (or maybe it was in the comments??), but how an employee handles mundane tasks says a lot about them and their work ethic. For years I was the most junior and had to do the worst admin task that would come in. I just smiled and kept on truckin through, eventually getting promoted. This kind of behaviour just comes off as so unprofessional and people will take note. Fake it til you make it!

    1. theotherjennifer

      Agreed. And frankly, this could easily reflect on the OP, just by the fact that these “junior employees” are supposed to be part of a team. It may not affect her work, per se, but she could potentially be tarred with the same brush just by being close by.

    2. Ralish

      I agree that’s true, however I do think there’s a balance here. Some of the best advice I ever got was to be a team player, but to also look out for yourself. That includes taking on as much mundane work as needed, of course, but to stick up for yourself so you’re not sacrificing better projects/career growth just for the sake of the rest of the team.

    3. FD

      Exactly. Prove you’re reliable in small but annoying things, and they’ll trust you with big and difficult things. Don’t forget that being a manager isn’t exactly sunshine and roses; if you can’t suck it up and file the month’s receipts, how do you expect them to believe that you’ll fire someone who needs to be fired?

  4. Workingmom66

    I was that young, complaining person once. It wasn’t an every day thing but when I was unhappy about something I was not quiet about it. I wish someone would have sat me down and explained to me that I might be hurting my department’s morale, that I could potential hurt my career, etc. I chalk my loud complaining up to immaturuty, I learned but I wish I had learned sooner. So please talk to them because they probably do not even realize the (potential) effects of their actions.

    1. Janet

      I feel the same way. When I think of things I did back when I was just entering the work force, I just cringe. Someone helpfully coming by and saying “You are doing X and you need to stop doing it” would have been tremendous. And you have to be obvious. If you say “Sometimes people do X and it’s unprofessional” never works because people often don’t see themselves in the complaint.

    2. anon

      Young, inexperienced people aren’t the only ones who have a problem with complaining. I worked with someone who had a long career as a freelancer, but started working with our company after she got a divorce and needed a steady income. It was clear she didn’t have a very high frustration tolerance. She would complain all the time, every chance she got.

    3. tcookson

      When I was in my early twenties I worked on a team with others around the same age. Our working relationship was based around a lot of mild, good-natured complaining of the sort that our manager didn’t mind much, because we never let customers or other departments hear it; we just kept it amongst ourselves.

      Somehow, we started a “No Complaining” experiment amongst ourselves, and we were all *so surprised* at how much more optimism we felt at work on a daily basis. Our boss was pretty indulgent about it — she was wise enough to know that of course we felt better without all the complaining, but she never once acted like it was anything other than our own brilliant discovery.

  5. BCW

    I usually agree with AAM on this, but in this instance, I do agree that the MYOB thing is in play. I’m also sure I’ll have plenty of people disagree with me. The question is, does THEIR complaining affect YOUR work? If you can honestly say that yes, it makes morale on your whole team lower or it impedes productivity because they are so loud, then by all means talk to them or the manager. If not then just let it go. If the more senior people are annoyed with it, I’m sure they will tell the manager. Otherwise if you go to the manager to say “Jane is complaining too much” you look like a tattle tail. (I know that some will argue that there isn’t tattling at work, but if you are only telling your boss to really get them in trouble, not because its affecting others, then yes, I consider it tattling). When I taught, if I had students complain about others, my first question would be “how is this affecting your ability to do what you need to do?” If there wasn’t a real answer, I didn’t do anything about it.

    As a pre-emptive comment to anyone who will say that hearing it impacts morale in general, I disagree. Complaining about work is something that 99% of people do at some point. Even people who are fairly content in their jobs complain about something usually. If your ability to do your job well is significantly impacted by what other people say, then that to me is something you need to work on, not letting yourself be distracted or influenced by others as much.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’ll also add that it’s different from your teaching example. When you’re managing, there are many situations where you’d be more inclined to take action to intervene than a teacher might — your responsibilities for outcomes are different.

      (Also, while 99% of people may complain about work at some point, most do not do it constantly and loudly. And if they do, it’s usually something that isn’t going to end well if a manager becomes aware of it.)

      1. BCW

        I only brought up the teaching example because I do think the definition of “tattling” basically remains the same. If you are telling someone because you are worried about something (morale, productivity, safety, etc) its valid. If you are doing it only to get someone in trouble, which it sounds like this would be, then I see it as tattling. And you are saying its addressing an issue not trying to get someone in trouble, fair enough, but its really semantics to me. But this issue isn’t having any real impact on the OPs ability to do her job, so why does she really care? I could tell my boss that my co-worker comes in late whenever the boss isn’t here. But if it doesn’t affect my job, why do I need to tell the boss to “address the issue”?

        Like I said, the OP made no real case that this is affecting her ability to do her job, or even that the complainer isn’t doing her job well.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Because if you care about having an effective, well running organization that gets the best results it can, the manager needs to be aware that this is happening.

        2. likesdesifem

          I disagree. A happy worker is a productive worker.

          this means that all work aspects need to be well structured to make an employee productive (including co-workers’ behaviour).

          It’s true that everybody complains, but surely it’s a matter of extent. If somebody is voicing great discontent continuously, then this creates an impact on the workplace, and needs to be corrected.

          Another thing is that, especially in team environments, employees are actively judged on their social skills and how they relate to others. A major part of this is not pissing people off, offending them, or rubbing them up the wrong way. It’s like any other interaction. People will get annoyed if they have a troublesome spouse, friend, child, etc.

          1. the gold digger

            That’s not necessarily true. I’m happiest at when I’m gossiping with my co-workers. Least happy when I am putting together the monthly financial reports.

        3. Joey

          That’s a terrible attitude. What if someone were stealing? What if someone were sabatoging the company. What if the employees who are on time start resenting you because you don’t want to hear about stuff that’s unfair?

          1. FiveNine

            I know, I am so taken aback — as though students or employees deliberately seek out a teacher or superviser because they have nothing better to do than waste the teacher or superviser’s time just “tattling” on something of no importance. If someone seeks out a superior to register a complaint, it’s usually because a situation is at a point that needs to be, you know, managed.

        4. SW

          I disagree as well. That “why should you care?” attitude, coming from a manager, would absolutely wreck the morale of the good employees on that team. Why would I want to work with a manager who doesn’t want to address bad behavior from employees? Plus, leaving it alone can teach good employees the wrong thing: “If Jane can get away with showing up late, so can I.”

          Also, if another employee stole from the company, it wouldn’t directly affect my ability to do my job. Does that mean I shouldn’t care about it or report it?

    2. CoffeeLover

      I agree that I don’t think OP should go to her manager. I think the best and most effective way to deal with this is to approach the complaining people with a helpful conversation. Do it in a way that shows you’re telling them this because it might be hurting THEM and not because it annoys you. If they don’t listen to reason, then I would leave it. You did your best to show them the light, now it’s up to someone more senior to address the issue further. When I first started working, I worked with a girl who had a plethora of inappropriate office behaviors. I didn’t work closely enough with her to feel the need to bring it up with her, but the fact that I acted so professionally in light of her behavior really gave me an edge moving forward. What I’m saying, is that their behavior really isn’t impacting you or your image, so other than your concern for their success (which is totally valid), their behavior isn’t your responsibility to fix.

      1. anon

        I agree it’s a little much to complain to the manager. I think she should address it directly with the people complaining. When she catches them in the act, she should be direct about it. Just a couple sentences to make it clear it’s a problem for them and everyone else. But going to your manager? Eh.

    3. Cassie

      Having taught ballet classes, I agree about when students complain about one another. I’ve had little kids try to tell me that another kid wasn’t doing the step correctly and I had to tell them to not “worry” about other kids.

      However, if one kid was being loud and disruptive, to the point where other kids couldn’t focus or learn, then it most definitely is an issue that the teacher would have to deal with.

      Applying that to the workplace – coworkers going out for lunch and complaining about their duties: okay. Coworkers complaining loudly and frequently in the office area, to the point where it would be distracting to other workers? Not okay.

  6. Joey

    I’d say something to them before I brought it up to their manager. Besides if someone was doing this wouldn’t you rather them tell you directly instead of getting a finger wagging from your manager?

  7. E.R

    I wish I had learned earlier what a difference a positive (even if only on the outside) attitude makes. I had a job a few years ago, that I admittedly hated mostly because the corporate culture was pretty bad and stress levels were always high, and complaining with my colleagues was a great way to relieve stress and build comraderie. But, it’s really hard to switch off that negative energy, and it compounds. I am sympathetic to colleagues who complain now, but I make sure never to complain out loud to them (friends outside work is a different story). Weirdly, I have a lot less stress at work these days, and I think the “no complaining rule” is a major factor. I also think I appear more competent overall because of it.

    1. anon

      I’ve experienced the same thing. I only complain to my two best friends when I’m out of the office, and I try to keep it short and add in some humor. If you get heavy-duty with the complaining, you’re just going to make yourself feel more stressed out and stuck.

  8. Anonimal

    I agree with AAM. There is no reason you can’t say something, exactly as you wrote. Think of it as a PSA type of thing.

  9. FormerComplainer

    Go and talk to them first (unless you’ve been specifically told not to). Make sure to give them some positive recognition on the importance of the mundane work. If they don’t respect your opinion, you gave them a chance. If they apologize or regret what was said, offer to help keep them in line. This will increase the amount of trust in the team. If they continue being a detriment to morale, report them to their manager or HR. If you are the manager or HR and want to keep them around but discipline them quite severely, split them up to inform them that further behavior will not be tolerated. Isolation is best used as a last resort but can be quite effective in behavior correction (or politely showing them the door). I know because I’m in that last part – how I wish I’d done things differently.

  10. likesdesifem

    Speak with them privately first.

    Then if this doesn’t work, go to your boss, and let him or her handle it.

    That said though, if your boss has heard them complain, then s/he should be stamping it out. A good manager always should nip potential issues in the bud, and not necessarily rely solely on what people tell him or her what is wrong.

  11. perrik

    I think it would be a favor to the newcomers to speak honestly with them. Everyone in this group has to do the crap work, not just them. Demonstrating professional competence and behavior will help them advance to the next level and get more interesting stuff to do. But if they establish a reputation among their peers and higher-ups as annoying whiners, they’re not going to get those cool assignments.

    What really concerns me is that the OP pointed out that higher-level people are overhearing this. “Hey Jill, did you know that a couple of your new junior people are complaining constantly about having to do their job? I can hear them from my desk, they’re practically yelling about how bored they are! They were at it again just a few minutes ago! I was on the phone with Wakeen and even he could hear them b*tching away. It’s getting really annoying to hear this all the damn time.”

    I just hope the OP’s manager is not the kind who would decide to “fix” the problem by giving the two complainers a choice assignment in order to make them happy. That would have as bad an impact on team morale as the constant complaining.

    If you want the fun of a snuggly purry kitty on your lap, you also have to deal with the litter box and nail trimming.

    1. FiveNine

      I had never seen the name Wakeen before and assumed you must have been spelling out Joaquin phonetically — then I just looked it up and Wakeen is described as a form of Joaquin. Learn something new every day!

      1. Spanish Teacher

        It actually stems from an earlier Ask=a-Manager column about embarrassing job stories. I highly encourage you to search for the story– it’s hilarious!

  12. Kou

    If they’re as young and as junior as they sound, there is the distinct possibility that this was really normal wherever they worked together before and they just don’t know well enough to pick up on the fact that it doesn’t happen in this new setting. Workplace culture and all that.

    I also think people tend to be more candid with interns than employees because you’re trying to teach them– the people that ran my university internship said things to us that they would have never said to most anyone else in the office because it was politically volatile, but something they felt we should really know about how things worked on the subtle side of things, or on the “I’ve been doing this every day for thirty years” side of things. They may not understand the distinction between that and publicly airing things out.

  13. Yup

    If you want to talk to them directly, it doesn’t have to be a solemn sit down serious talking to. You could start with the I-just-happened-to-be-nearby approach. When they’re loudly complaining, casually go their work area and do something related to your own work (retrieving a file, making a copy, whatever). Let their conversation continue for a minute or two — so it’s clear you’ve heard a bit of the convo — then catch their eye and pleasantly say something like, “Filing is lousy. But you know, they won’t give you more interesting stuff to do until you prove that you can handle it with the right attitude.” And then wait to see their response.

    They might be abashed, in which case you can smile and “Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. It gets better. I once had to “. Then you’re demonstrating the upbeat professionalism that they can follow. If they’re snotty or whiny about it, you can just smile and move on to mentioning it to their manager, with the caveat that you broached it with them and they didn’t seem to get it. Either way, you’re coming across to as a kindly low-pressure mentor without drama or agenda.

    1. Jen in RO

      I think this is the best approach – making your point without making a huge deal out of it.

  14. bean

    you can hear them above your earbuds? during lunch or drinks ask them if they realize how loud they are. if they are as loud as you say they are, and they continue, there’s no need to tell their boss. people have a way of digging their own graves. no need to tattle.

  15. Jen

    I like Alison’s idea about getting to know them separately – divide and conquer! It sounds like they talk like this because they know each other as friends as well as co-workers and so feel at ease to moan to each other, just like many of us may do to our friends. Of course, the problem is that it is at work and disruptive! So speaking with them individually to bring them into the team might make them tone it down. You might find that one is the complainer and the other just agrees – speaking with one could influence the other. I think the key here is getting to know their individual personalities so that you can determine how to proceed – would one be receptive to criticism or advice? Take it better from your manager? Tell their friend they need to be more professional? Although I guess that might be a bit more effort than is necessary and it is up to them how they take your or your manager’s advice.

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