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EMPLOYEE RELATIONS

Chronic complainers a workplace blight Add to ...

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. The newly hired employee at Jordan Engineering Inc. seemed to find fault in everything.

“She didn’t like the BlackBerry we gave her, she complained about every little thing,” recalls Sandra Murre, founder and chief executive officer of Beamsville, Ont.-based Jordan. “No matter what we did, no matter what we gave her, there was just no pleasing her.”

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The employee’s constant litany of complaints started to get to other workers in the 20-employee company. Ms. Murre let her go just a couple of months after she was hired.

“The constant complaints were a huge energy drainer,” Ms. Murre says. “She upset the rest of the staff because we’re all happy to be here, and they felt bad she wasn’t happy.”

The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but it can also set everyone’s teeth on edge. And in a business setting, chronic complainers do more than fray nerves – they can actually cause real harm to productivity, performance and profits, say business and workplace experts.

“We know that workplace culture has a direct impact on employee morale, engagement, absenteeism and retention – all these things that affect the bottom line,” says Delphine du Toit, a Halifax-based consultant who specializes in workplace dynamics. “When you have people who are constantly complaining at work, over time, that negativity starts to seep into your culture and has a spinoff effect into the rest of your organization.”

Complainers can also kill innovation in business, Ms. Du Toit says – something that Ms. Murre realized after another always-negative employee left her company. That employee, who had worked for Jordan Engineering for several years, had a that’s-never-going-to-work attitude that made co-workers reluctant to try out new ideas, Ms. Murre says.

While chronic complaining is bad for all types and sizes of businesses, small enterprises, in particular, need to be extra-vigilant about this workplace blight, says Trevor Blake, a Seattle-based serial entrepreneur and author of Three Simple Steps, a guide to success that is scheduled for publication this month.

In a small operation, where employees typically work in close quarters and have overlapping responsibilities, the effect of constant griping becomes more intensified, Mr. Blake says. “You can’t run away from it. You have nowhere to hide.”

Having even one complainer in the workplace can kill the spirit of initiative in an enterprise, Mr. Blake says – not a good thing for small businesses, which often rely on their employees to pitch in as needed, even with tasks that don’t match their job description.

So what’s the cure for complaining?

Michael Gokturk, chief executive officer of Payfirma Corp., a Vancouver-based payment systems and processing company, offers a solution that may raise eyebrows among those who have had to tolerate a chronic complainer’s rants: Listen.

“You need to acknowledge and really listen to what the person is complaining about,” he says. “People will complain more if they feel they’re not being listened to and, worse, they’ll do it behind your back.”

But acknowledging a complaint is only one part of Mr. Gokturk’s approach. At his company, employees who want to voice a concern are also expected to have a solution at hand.

“They don’t have to have the perfect solution,” says Mr. Gokturk, whose company was named last year by KPMG LLP as the country’s best startup. “In fact, the solution they’re proposing may not even work at all, but the point is they’re taking steps to improve a situation, instead of just complaining about it.”

To get everyone, including complainers, to buy into the company’s problem-solving culture, Payfirma gives rewards to employees who come up with innovative ways to improve the firm’s products and services. The rewards range from free dinners and iPhones to cash and all-expense-paid weekend getaways.

The approach has worked so far, Mr. Gokturk says. Since it opened for business last January, Payfirma has released 25 product updates, about half of which were the result of employees’ suggestions.

Corin Mullins, co-founder of Holy Crap cereal maker HapiFoods Group Inc. based in Sechelt, B.C., says employees need to know there’s a protocol and chain of command in place for handling complaints. At HapiFoods, for instance, factory workers know to bring their problems to the factory manager, who then decides if she should deal with the issue herself or consult with the owners.

“All the staff know that if they have a complaint, it’s dealt with immediately within a two-day period,” Ms. Mullins says.

In some companies, complaining is completely verboten; the no-complaining rule rules. But Mr. Blake says this works only when employees are empowered to make changes that will fix their complaints. Without this empowerment, workers will likely clam up, tolerate the problems and eventually leave.

Ms. Murre says it’s a good idea to have regular meetings to discuss what each employee is doing that day or week. At her company, workers do this during their daily “huddles.”

“Our staff works at home a lot, so if you’re the one left in the office, you could start to feel you’re the only one working,” Ms. Murre says. “With our daily meetings, we all get a sense of what everyone else is doing.”

During these meetings, employees are also asked if they’re “stuck” on anything – a proactive way to deal with problems before they become complaints, Ms. Murre says.

There’s one other thing Ms. Murre does to continue building a company of non-complainers: She muzzles her own negative talk.

“I’ve learned over the years that the one thing I wish I hadn’t said is the one thing our staff will remember,” she says.

“So I’m careful not to complain.”

CURES FOR THE CHRONIC COMPLAINER

Lend an ear

Take the time to really listen to the complaint.

Insist on a solution

Turn complainers into problem-solvers by asking them to bring a solution to their gripe along with it.

Establish a complaints process

Even in a small business, complaints should be handled through the proper chain of command and due process.

Keep everyone in the loop

Meet regularly to discuss what each team member is working on, and any complaints they may have.

Ask if anyone needs help

Nip complaints in the bud by being proactive about identifying problems.

Muzzle complaining at the top

Corporate culture is built from the top down. Business owners and leaders need to curb their own tendencies to gripe.

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