Got a serial complainer? Here’s how to cope


A serial complainer can make your workplace pretty uncomfortable but don’t dismiss them out of hand – there may be underlying issues you need to be aware of.

Employees should be encouraged to speak up before problems become serious or endemic – this seems obvious, as we discussed in a recent article by HR Advance. But what can you do about the opposite situation – with employees who habitually complain about issues, many of which are trivial or non-existent?

Why do they do it?

Serial complainers usually are quickly identified as such by both their co-workers and by managers. It is important to identify why they often complain. Common reasons are:

  • to gain attention
  • sabotage
  • to settle scores with co-workers or managers
  • because they perceive that “the squeaky wheel gets the oil”
  • because they have genuine concerns about problems in the business, or the conduct of their managers or co-workers.

A big problem is that some of the complaints will have substance and some will not. So the challenge is to encourage them to make the complaints which have substance and to discourage the rest.

What problems do these people cause?

The most obvious problems caused by serial complainers are disruption to productivity and employee morale. They may also sow the seeds for complaints by others of bullying or harassment. 

Less obvious is that other employees will observe how you and other managers deal with them. If they perceive that serial complaining is proving to be a successful strategy for the employees who do it, they may be tempted to behave in similar fashion. If that happens, the situation may go out of control and you may end up fighting a “bushfire”.

The answer, however, is not to actively discourage serial complainers from speaking up. In much the same way that even your least accomplished employee may have an occasional great idea, a serial complainer will sometimes alert you to a genuine problem requiring action. But if they are discouraged in a negative way, either they will feel ignored and decide not to report a real issue, or the issue is ignored because you don’t take the employee seriously.

Solution: transparency and consistency

What you need is a process that ensures that all complaints and concerns raised by employees are handled in a transparent and consistent manner. It must be evident to all employees that this is the case, which may take some time to achieve if serial complainers have been indulged in the past.

The goal must be that employees who have genuine concerns should be able to communicate them in a non-threatening environment and with confidence that you will take them seriously and pursue a constructive solution. Therefore, you need to make “nuisance” employees aware of what they need to do, which is the same as everyone else – that is follow the correct procedure and provide solid evidence to demonstrate that their concerns are genuine.

If your business has a Personal Grievance Policy, we recommend that it includes some guidelines on how to raise concerns and make complaints. You should also set out how managers will handle them.

The guidelines for “building trust and seeking constructive feedback” set out in this article – Discouraging employees from speaking up is just not cricket – are also recommended.

What if the complainer persists?

If a serial complainer persists with his/her behaviour, it is worth trying to establish why he/she makes so many complaints. For example, the underlying reason may be one of those listed under “Why do they do it” above, and the root cause may be very different from the subject matter of the complaints. In such cases, at least one “one-on-one” conversation with the employee is recommended, to try to identify and address the real reasons. At the same time, remind the employee of the correct procedure and requirements for making complaints.

How Fresh HR Insights can help

Fresh HR Insights Personal Grievance Policy provides a framework for dealing with individual personal grievances in the workplace. Our Complaint and Grievance Form can be used by employees to put their complaint or grievance in writing.

Businesses should also consider having a Whistle-Blower Policy. This is mandatory in some instances, for example, businesses covered by relevant provisions in the Corporations Act 2001 and the relevant fraud, anti-competition and accounting whistleblower scheme overseen by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission. 

A whistleblower is anyone who raises issues of wrongdoing to a manager or equivalent. Wrongdoing includes conduct that is dishonest, fraudulent or corrupt.

Written By Mike Toten on 17th Apr 2018