how can I get my staff to stop making trivial complaints all day?

A reader writes:

I have recently been promoted to manage a department of about 20 people within a large organization. The last manager did not seem very supportive and people used to complain about that, so I decided that I would be very supportive in order to improve morale and performance. I instigated an open door policy and made it clear that I was there to help with any problems, especially with our patients, who are often stressed by their situation and can be very demanding.

However, I am beginning to suspect that this has backfired. I now seem to have people in my office all day complaining about very trivial matters that I’m pretty sure they could have sorted out themselves. For example, they will come to tell me if a patient has spoken out of turn to them; I expected them to consult me if a patient was offensive, not just bad mannered. Worse still, I feel as if there is even more of a negative atmosphere than before, and one of my (positive) colleagues told me that they often spend their entire lunch breaks moaning about the patients and saying that I should deal with them more firmly. I have to say that it is only two of the staff who do this, with another who joins in, but I’m really worried that this negativity is bringing down the whole atmosphere. How have I got this so wrong?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • How can I tell my coworker about the bad exit interviews she receives?
  • Should I say something about my ex-husband’s fake LinkedIn profile?
  • I heard a new coworker trash-talking the job
  • Explaining why I’m looking for a new job after four months

{ 49 comments… read them below }

  1. Roscoe*

    As far as trash talking to me its tough. Because you can be a trash talker and also great at your job. I do sales, and I definitely complain about customers. I also sell a lot of product because I’m able to separate my personal feelings from my goal of selling. So depending on the promotion, it may not really make much of a difference. And talking about a co-worker, well do you really know the context? If not, I’d let that go, because you don’t know what the co-worker may have said or done. One of my co-workers constantly belittles our new hires. If I heard them complaining about it, I can’t say I’d be shocked, nor would my opinion of them change.

  2. Red Reader*

    Letter 4: Is there something that got edited out? The response talks about someone making comments like that “after only three months on the job,” and unless I overlooked it multiple times (which is possible!), the letter as posted doesn’t say anything about how long the coworker has been working, just that she’s up for an internal promotion.

      1. Red Reader*

        Pretty minor I guess, but “internal promotion” and “3 months on the job” don’t usually go together, so I was curious :) thanks!

  3. Bea*

    I had to learn to deal with the constant moaning about customers when I started in my new office awhile back. It took some tweaking but I’ve learned that if you don’t feed into it, the less you’ll hear.

    I’m flexible and go with the flow, so requests and grouchy accounts who want it done specifically to their demands are met with proper accommodations. Whereas others are like “the ef, why do we always do these kinds of favors?”

    Negativity in others is draining though and I understand the desire to change them. They’ll never ever stop complaining but you can make it clear you won’t listen to the little nitpicks they’re bringing you.

    If they say “patient is being rude” I’d respond with “he seems to respond better if you knock first and have a little chit chat instead of just grabbing his arm and putting the cuff on him.” Or some kind of advice on how to work around their issue if it’s something you can provide.

    I get a lot of “how to you do it?” My response is “I cant change others but I can change how I approach them.”

  4. M from NY*

    It takes time to address perceptions. If employees felt they were not being heard it will take more than you listening to get them to your ultimate goal of retaking their power.

    Take your top 2 minor complaints and meet with your group. Make it a learning exercise laying out steps of how they should be able to handle interaction with clients vs an example where the client has breached line that requires your involvement.

    I don’t think you should stop listening but refocus how you are spending this time. Don’t let every open door ask turn into a complaining session but use to actively address conversation to how/where they can and should deal with situation. If you get the “doers” to start feeling better it can help stem the influence of the chronic complainers who will be slow to see that there’s a new sheriff and management in town.

    1. Mike C.*

      I’d just like to add that if you can, empower the employees to fix these minor issues themselves. “What have you tried to fix it” can be a great filter for needless whining and can then bring more attention to the sorts of issues that actually require management help.

      Also autonomy is a great way to increase morale.

      1. Parenthetically*

        I absolutely agree with this. I think often complaining becomes this self-perpetuating thing because it’s the only perceived way to get a problem solved when your hands are tied. If employees have felt like they have to get permission to make even the slightest change, and now suddenly they have a listening ear, I can understand the dam-bursting feeling OP is getting.

      2. PlainJane*

        “What have you tried to fix it” – This. Also, “What would you like me to do to help you with this?” if that’s more appropriate for the situation. It sounds like an invitation to be more helpless, but at least with my staff, they often stop complaining, think for a minute, and then tell me not to worry about it, because they’re just venting (which I don’t mind if it doesn’t happen too often).


    For #1, it seems like LW/OP’s employees are not just venting but also took “support” to mean OP would handle everything, which obviously isn’t possible, and even if it were, handling patients sounds like a basic part of their jobs. The script about what should and what should not be brought forward is extra important in that case – it needs to be made clear what they are responsible for handling, no matter how unpleasant they might find it.

    1. Decimus*

      I’m wondering if the solution for #1 here is to cut to the chase a little and ask directly “what resolution are you seeking from me?” Because that’s the manager’s role here, really. If the IT department is slow to respond, the manager can talk to the other department. If a patient is outright cursing at staff, a manager can establish policy or even, in extreme cases, fire the patient. But if it’s just “A patient ignored me when I said hello and now I feel bad” – your manager doesn’t need to DO anything there.

  6. Pam*

    Ooh, yes. Negativity whiners drive me nuts. (including a sibling or two) Either come up with solutions or if it’s something that can’t be solved, quit harping on it!

    1. Mike C.*

      I’m torn on this because you’re not wrong. I’m sitting in a meeting right now being run by such a person and it’s painful.

      Too many times I’ve seen “they’re just whining” as a way to dismiss legitimate complaints or a sign that a manager didn’t want to perform the harder parts of their job. Either that, or you occasionally run into the type of person who bristles at any form of negativity what so ever as “unprofessional”.

      I’m not questioning the OP here, this is just something I’ve experienced personally.

    2. Dizzy Steinway*

      With difficult patients or clients it’s also sometimes the case that you need to give people a contained space in which to offload in order to mitigate work related stress and vicarious trauma (depending on the type of population you work with).

      If the only support I had was someone asking me what I had done to resolve it and telling me not to bother them otherwise, I’d have a breakdown. But I don’t bug my manager all day as I have appropriate support.

  7. Ayla K*

    IRT #5, I know you’ve talked about leaving short stint jobs off your resume before, but how does that work when it’s a current job, as it is in this LW’s situation? Surely it will come up during the interview process that they are currently employed?

    1. Justanotherthought*

      I was wondering about that, too. Even if it’s left off the resume, the interviewer will likely ask what you’re doing now or what you’ve been doing since leaving your last job. Do you just gloss over it and mention what you’ve been doing otherwise? To me, that would kind of be lying by omission.

    2. LC*

      I’m curious about this as well. It seems disingenuous to leave out the new job entirely (though perhaps it would help to leave it off the resume for the purpose of getting jobs), but it would be hard to address leaving a job so quickly in a way that would assuage any worries you’d do the same to the next company.

      I wonder if being upfront is the way to go here. Something like, “I knew when I accepted this job that it was grossly under market rate for this sort of role/my skill set/whatever, but unfortunately I was not in a position financially to turn it down.” But then follow up with something that demonstrates you know it was wrong, like, “That said, I feel terrible to have accepted a position I knew I couldn’t fully commit to, and I know not to make that mistake in the future.”

  8. MsCHX*

    The looking for new challenges doesn’t fly after just 4 months but OP could frame the job as being not what she expected / not as described and therefore not challenging enough, etc.

    1. synchrojo*

      Is there a way to raise the financial issue? OP, this may not work in your situation, but what about saying something along the lines of either “as I’ve come to understand my current position better, it’s become clear that the compensation they are able to provide isn’t in line with the market rate for the work expected of me” or if you moved to a new city around the time you started the job, “I underestimated the cost of living difference between and , and unfortunately the salary my current organization is able to pay is insufficient to cover my financial obligations”

      1. synchrojo*

        that was supposed to say “between current city and previous place”. Forgot that angle brackets are a bad idea

      2. Jesmlet*

        I don’t know… this would sound to me like they had just been careless and not done the research beforehand. As a hiring manager I would rather hear that you took the offer to tide you over financially but that it’s not necessarily where you want to be long term. That’s just my preference though.

      3. Stardust*

        I like your framing. It is a better response than what the LW was offering in the interviews.

    2. Decimus*

      I think explaining the job as “not as described” may be the best way to go. You need to be careful not to overtly badmouth your employer but I think you could say something like “Even in the few months I’ve been at Current Job, it’s been clear to me the role is evolving into a different direction than was originally described and I want to focus on X skills at this point in my career, which is why THIS job interests me.”

      1. LC*

        That seems like it would still read as flightiness to an employer, though. No job will never totally match up with the job description/expectations, and I think that reads as, “If I don’t get to do exactly what I want to do, I might leave.”

    3. Giudecca*

      I started looking for a new position after being with my last employer for only 5 months. I had two interviews and made it to the final round with one employer and was hired by the second within a month of beginning my search. I didn’t leave the job off my resume, but framed it as you’ve suggested. I basically said, “The role turned out to be a bit different than I expected” People always probed, so I had a couple of go-to, semi-neutral comments like:

      -Previously, my duties were handled by an offsite contractor, so I don’t think the organization had a good sense of all of the immediate challenges I’d need to tackle before beginning the strategic initiatives that I was hired to work on. The workload is such that I won’t be able to start the strategic work for a very long time and while I’m happy to work on X and Y tasks, my real strengths really lie in Z. (Z being something they have indicated they wants someone to work on)
      – I underestimated how much I enjoyed coaching and mentoring other employees. That isn’t a part of my current role so I want to make sure that leading a team is a part of my next role. (This provided a good pivot to discussing my management experience and style).

      The real reason was the workplace was a disaster, the expectations were highly unrealistic and the company lied about their financial position, but, those aren’t good things to say in an interview.

  9. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    “However, I am beginning to suspect that this has backfired. I now seem to have people in my office all day complaining about very trivial matters that I’m pretty sure they could have sorted out themselves.”

    Start asking questions they don’t want to answer. “I see. And what steps have you taken to resolve that yourself?” “I see, and given that I can really only deal with a patient when they’re abusive, not just when they’re impolite, what would you like me to do right now?”

  10. Dizzy Steinway*

    So I know it’s an old letter but at my organisation we work with some very challenging service users. We don’t have a culture of speaking disrespectfully about them (and I don’t think you have to allow that to be supportive to your reports).

    The following things have helped:

    – Training looking at some of the ways in people reach the point of being challenging in different ways, and at some of the reasons why we might find it hard to help.

    – Protected spaces in which to offload e.g. group reflective practice, supervision.

    1. Artemesia*

      This. A culture where providers constantly demean the clients of the service whether they are wealthy college students. mental patients, welfare recipients, the homeless or hospital patients is unacceptable. The minimum of professionalism is not treating clients as if they were not worthy human beings. If encouraging whining has amplified this, it is a big problem that needs to be aggressively and openly met.

      I would think about hiring someone who specializes in training around these issues and make it very clear that open contempt for clients is not acceptably professional and provides tools for providers to deal with difficult clients would be a way to address this piece.

      And when people complain, absolutely begin with a focus on how they can deal. I used to always respond to students who came in to complain about grades as if they had actually asked me how they could improve. They wanted to say ‘I never get Bs’ or ‘I tried really hard and how come I got a C because I really really really worked hard on this’ and I would hear ‘oh do tell me how I could perform better next time?’ And I would carefully strategize with them about how to approach the next assignment and what quality performance looked like. Over time I got good at being able to clarify what excellent performance looked like in very concrete terms and they stopped whining about how their ‘efforts’ should result in trophies.

      Sympathizing with the difficulties of working with difficult clients while focusing on strategies for coping with that as effective professionals might help change the tone. That and absolutely not tolerating mocking of or complaining about clients except in the context of addressing their needs more effectively.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        This, this.

        People are not going to learn new skills or develop new approaches if they are busy whining. I think whining is like an addictive drug, once a group starts it is really hard to get them out of it.

        I don’t know,OP, maybe in the long run you will end up dismissing one or two people over this point. Sometimes it is one person who is bringing the whole group down.

        My suggestions are:
        1) Describe the behaviors that are not tolerated. I am sure you don’t want your staff used as punching bags by the patients. So hitting is not tolerated, it’s reportable for immediate action. I am sure you have other examples.
        2)Next, I suggest bringing in training materials with new ideas for handling old problems. There will always be difficult patients. This is not new. What is being done to prepare staff to handle the patient who is being difficult?
        3) Are people told to team up and work in pairs if someone is giving them a hard time? IF that is already in place, then are people told to relieve their coworkers when they see the coworker is spent/done with dealing with the difficult patient?
        4) And this one is tough. Let them know that they are being paid to carry a helpful and professional attitude. This means that endlessly whining about patients is not acceptable. Reasons:
        a)It pulls others down.
        b)It detracts from the group effort.
        c) It is part of the job. If a person needs support helping a patient then they should ask for help rather than whine about it hours later.
        d) Patient care is what the company provides. “It’s what we do!” Every job has parts that are not likable. Any one who has pro-active suggestions on how to deal with difficult people should share those ideas.
        e) Constant complaining means there is a very high chance of being overheard by the wrong person.

        Tell people if they are having difficulty they should come see you, or inquire about EAP, or maybe consider taking some vacation time in order to try to relieve their stress.
        I 2000% agree with Artemesia’s last paragraph. I dread walking into a medical place of any sort. I have so. many. stories. If I were to talk to your staff, I would say, “Yes, I did hear you complaining when you thought no one was around. I heard you say Dr. Jones is a$$, patient Sally should die and you hate your coworker Jane. I heard all that. I have my own full set of concerns, that is why I am in this building. Hearing you vent has just tripled my concerns. I no longer have faith in you to do your job with a clear head, I think your stress is distracting you and you may make mistakes.”
        Hopefully, I am just a visitor because if I am a patient I have just become so stressed out that I am now that difficult patient.

        I remember having my knee sewed together the first time. The doctor called me a stupid fn b!tch right to my face. My big offense was because I was crying because I had a hole in my knee. (I have fat knees, so this was a decent sized hole.) My point is, that attitude is everything. In that moment I lost total faith in that doctor. I honestly believed he had no clue what he was doing. Instead of crying less, I cried harder.

  11. Edith*

    I think in #3’s place, whatever else I decided to do about the situation I would de-link myself from the ex’s account with the false information.

    1. many bells down*

      My ex also has false info on his LinkedIn, but we’re not connected so he can do what he likes, I guess. He’s listed a couple of professional licenses I know he cannot have (California revokes them when you’re in arrears on child support, that’s how I know). So yeah, definitely de-link yourself. I’d do that for any person if I knew they were misrepresenting themselves.

  12. DouDou Paille*

    I understand that customers can be frustrating, but there’s something wrong when staff complain about SICK PATIENTS in a HOSPITAL. I realize that a minority of patients are downright nasty or even abusive, but the average patient is in pain and literally feeling worse than they possibly ever have in their life. Not a recipe for being on your best behavior, or observing social niceties. The few times I have been hospitalized I know that I was not Miss Cheerful. Pain makes you cranky, and being attached to tubes and machines is quite scary. I understand why patients might be short-tempered or demanding. To complain about it to your boss seems very unprofessional, and certainly lacking in compassion.

    1. kb*

      I’m sure it’s possible as a caretaker to sympathize with the patient’s condition and understand why they aren’t on their best behavior while simultaneously not being pleased with how they’re treating you. Being friends with nurses made me realize how few appropriate outlets there are for them. Because friends and family can lend an ear, but don’t like to receive all the negativity. The boss isn’t the best outlet for this, but I can see how it would just kind of seep out if they’re overflowing.

      1. kb*

        Not to say that there aren’t caregivers/nurses who are just ill-suited for the postion or have bad attitudes. I’m just saying that it’s not hard to imagine how working in this field could run a person down.

      2. dawbs*


        And complaints might not be just about the patient.

        Last time I was in the ER, there was a family there in a truly awful situation. Withouth go into to much detail, it was (and probably is) a no-win situation. Terminal child, parents trying really hard, awesome staff doing what they could. Frustration because of conflict between multiple hospitals, multiple doctors, insurance being insurance-y, scared kid who was acting in the way scared kids do.
        But I am reasonably sure that there were staff members frustrated at 2 am when I left–because the situation was frustrating-to-tears to me as a bystander (whose only vested interest was making cheerful small talk and sharing crayons w/ the kid), I can’t imagine that the staff was 100% immune to it.
        And that frustration wouldn’t be directed at the patient, but at the system as a whole.

        (I work in education. ANd I’ll admit I’ve groused about students, sometimes more than I ought. But I’ve also had discussions w/ other people who work in education that involve hand waving and frustration at ‘the system’, the necessary evils of testing, the methods of funding, the vocational training system in this country, the positives and negatives of developmental classes at various levels, etc. When I grouse to people in the know about the situation a student is in, it’s not always frustration at the student, it’s just as likely to be some form of the *Hand wavey ^all of That up there*.

    2. Hrovitnir*

      OK, working in caring professions is incredibly emotionally draining. A majority of people do it because they care about and want to help people – and a lot of those people spend a fair amount of time venting. Because miserable, sick people aren’t at their best, and empathy doesn’t make you immune to feeling bad when you’re treated badly (and these jobs are usually terribly understaffed).

      Which is not to say continuously complaining is a good idea, and given it’s mostly a couple of people they’ve probably got into a bad habit and headspace.

      But complaining about patients =/ not caring about them or your job.

      (I always used to say it’s better being a vet nurse, because if animals are in pain they just try and bite you: and once you stop doing the thing they’re generally incredibly forgiving. Dealing with sick, stressed humans would kill me.)

  13. Collarbone High*

    As a frequent hospital patient, I’ve definitely seen some fellow patients who are way over the line in how they treat medical personnel, and it’s inexcusable.

    That said, it seems like there’s a real culture of disrespect and disgust for patients among the two who spend their entire lunch breaks complaining about them, and that sort of thing can easily spread and poison big chunks of staff, especially newer employees. I’d be pretty upset to know the people who are taking care of me when I’m at my most vulnerable are griping incessantly about me. Changing that culture would go a long way toward fixing this.

    1. Artemesia*

      The medical profession has a whole set of terms for disrespecting patients. Gomer is the most obvious. (Get Out Of My Emergency Room) Many docs are overprivileged white men who begin with contempt for women, minorities, and mentally challenged people and couple that with their very hard work to become doctors, the attitude of disdain for people not like them is palpable. I think this has improved a bit with the increased diversity of medical doctors but it is common among the older generation and not absent from the younger. Many docs bond over contempt for patients.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Thank you for your well stated comments here. This one brings tears to my eyes because it touches so. many. stories.

    2. Jesmlet*

      For some people in the healthcare field, this sort of dehumanization becomes a default way of dealing with their tough jobs and avoiding burnout. Not saying it’s okay, but I get it. Personally I’d prefer a Dr. House over a Dr. Cameron. When I needed a difficult procedure done, I didn’t care that the doc I got had a crappy bedside manner. If he was bitching about me to coworkers, it wouldn’t have mattered because his reputation was just that good.

      1. Paquita*

        When I had surgery last year my doc had NO bedside manner. At my followup appt he said, and I quote: Your biopsy results came back. They were good. You have cancer.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          This happened to two different friends in two different states:
          Doc: “What do you mean you want to go home?! You’re not going home. You are going to be dead within the next 36 hours. Adjust your thinking.”

      2. Hrovitnir*

        Yep. You have to become somewhat hardened, but I feel pretty strongly that there’s a line, and if it’s bleeding into how you do your job (including how you interact with patients), you need to get out. I don’t have a tonne of sympathy for the fact that’s a hard thing to do, because you’re hurting people (/animals).

    3. MoodyMoody*

      Some venting is necessary, but it should be limited to the outliers, the really bad situations. A patient deliberately releases diarrhea on to you, a student goes ballistic in class, a client curses at you for no good reason. However, complaining about the routine of the job (changing a patient’s diaper, telling students to be quiet, trying to meet a client’s requests) is counter-productive and should be discouraged. I agree that an attitude of respect towards people you serve is paramount.

  14. nnn*

    Depending on context, it might possible to answer questions about why you’re looking for a new job with enthusiasm about the job you’re applying for. Not “I want a new job”, but “I just had to jump at the chance to apply for *this* job!” (Or to work at this company, or in this industry, or whatever aspects are different from the old job.)

  15. Fish Microwaver*

    For OP number one, is it possible to direct your reports to training in dealing with difficult customers/people and/or emotional intelligence? Perhaps your company has these available in house or online. I have found similar courses helpful in customer service roles (call centre).

  16. Drago cucina*

    I had a conversation today with another library director and the topic of whining came up. She has a one minute timer. The person can whine for one minute and then must come up with solutions or move on.

  17. Biff*

    #5 is definitely in a bind. If it were me, I might be honest and explain that I took my job understanding that I’d need to continue to look for work with a better salary. I might also sell it as a job that wasn’t as described. I may also say that I had some unexpected financial obligations and must now step up my earnings.

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