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Handling Complaints and Grievances

“Handling Complaints and Grievances”

Learn good techniques to deal with something that almost every company has: the concerns of the unhappy employee. Tips are also provided on how to address the constant complainer.


Employee complaints are inevitable even in the most work-friendly companies. Some complaints are quickly and easily resolved, while others take more time, energy and patience. Complaints can cover everything from cleanliness of restrooms to job flexibility.

Grievances, on the other hand, are formal complaints made by employees when they think a company or government policy, such as an anti-discrimination law, has been violated. A perceived transgression against a union contract is also grounds for filing a grievance. You must address grievances in a timely manner.

A prompt response that leads to quick resolution of a complaint or grievance will boost employee morale and productivity and can forestall costly legal action.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • How to respond to complaints.
  • Suggestions for dealing with habitual complainers.
  • How to avert grievances.
  • What to do if a grievance is filed.



Even if you consider employee complaints bothersome, welcome them as early warning signals. Complaints can:

  • Alert you to a new or growing problem before it gets out of hand and turns into a grievance.
  • Draw attention to a chronic problem you thought was resolved.
  • Give you a chance to retain valued employees by attending to their concerns promptly.

Responding to complaints

Never assume that a complaint is groundless. If someone took the time to point out a problem, assume that there is at least one concern that needs addressing.

  • Listen to the complainant. What is the specific issue? Ask pointed questions to get beyond vague contentions. If someone says, "We’re all working under way too much stress lately," ask what projects or issues are causing the stress. Ask too for ideas to resolve the matter. For tips on active listening, see "Better Listening for a Better Workplace."
  • Question other employees about their perception of the issue and look for the root of the problem. For example, is morale low across the whole company because of recent financial setbacks or management changes?
  • Provide an update. Let the employee know the status of their complaint. If you agree there is a problem, specify what you intend to do about it. If you decide not to act on their complaint, explain why.
  • Act on the problem. Schedule a date on your calendar to check and see if the complainant is satisfied with the results.

How to reduce the number of complaints

Complaints are inevitable, but you can reduce their frequency:

  • Encourage your managers to give regular feedback on performance. The number one gripe of most employees is lack of input on how they’re doing.
  • Involve employees in planning their own work.
  • Ask for and acknowledge employees’ ideas. If employees feel invested in the corporate culture, you may be able to prevent a "culture of complaint."

Silencing the constant complainer

Some employees are never satisfied. They complain repeatedly about everything from the price of a 25-cent cup of office coffee to their most recent assignment. If you decide you want to keep these employees, you can try these tactics:

  • Give even constant complainers the benefit of the doubt: their concerns may turn out to be well founded. Listen carefully. Even if you’ve heard a similar complaint from this individual, is there some new twist that might render the complaint valid?
  • Use preventive tactics. Some dedicated whiners are signaling that they need more attention. If possible, give it to them. Ask for their opinions and let them know how much you appreciate their contributions. Be aware that this can backfire if it just encourages the employee to complain even more often.
  • If the complaints really are petty, confront the complainer. He may not realize how his complaining affects people — one noisy misanthrope can harm morale company-wide. Encourage him to suggest solutions to the problems he identifies, instead of just pointing out the problems. This may lead him to think through the complaint more thoroughly before voicing it. If the complaining still continues, tactfully suggest that yours may not be the right company for him.


Grievances are alarm bells warning you about large problems that require immediate attention. If you receive a grievance, be grateful because it allows you to work out the problem within your company rather than in a courtroom.

Responding to a Grievance

Take all grievances seriously. Test the validity of a grievance by gathering all available facts:

  1. Listen carefully to the person submitting the grievance. Try to see the situation from his or her point of view. Ask questions. If someone says, "The women in the office are being harassed," ask for specific examples.
  2. Consult your company lawyer and HR professional. It is important that you take specific steps when following up to validate a grievance.
  3. Provide an update. Tell the person who submitted the grievance what steps you plan to take. If you agree there is a problem, specify what you intend to do about it. If you can’t validate the grievance, let the person know what you did to investigate the problem and why you aren’t pursuing it.
  4. Act on the problem. Schedule a date on your calendar to check and see if the person who submitted the grievance is satisfied with the results.

Handling formal grievances

If you have a union contract, you’ll have guidelines for handling grievances. Otherwise, you’ll need to follow a procedure like this:

  1. Complainants and their supervisors or team leaders should try hard to resolve the problem through discussion.
  2. Barring resolution, management would invite complainants to discuss their issues with the next higher level of management-without repercussions.
  3. If still unresolved, the complaint should go before a special mediator such as your human resources director. A third, outside party may be used for last-ditch arbitration.

How to avoid grievances

Grievances can be expensive and time-consuming, even ending in a lawsuit. Employees are less likely to file grievances if you:

  • Stay in touch. Employees who feel like they can approach management with concerns will be less likely to allow problems to grow to a point that filing a grievance is necessary.
  • Have a system in place for resolving complaints quickly and consistently, before they’re allowed to fester. Make sure your employee handbooks, contracts and work agreements include rules for hearing and settling disputes.


Daniel Walsh treats the 15 employees of his Southern California executive-catering firm to a beach-side picnic every six weeks or so. "Call it a ‘working social,’" he says. Everyone gets relaxed, making it easier to lay their gripes on the table and problem-solve.

By meeting regularly and often, Walsh says, "Minor complaints tend not to mushroom into major crises. Our business is so hectic we don’t have time or energy to sit down together once a week and discuss people’s complaints, but they all know they’ll be able to have their say at the next company picnic. Of course, I would immediately troubleshoot any urgent problems such as a sexual harassment complaint."

Walsh has his employees sit at a large, round table laden with food and beverages. Everyone takes a turn airing any complaints they have.

"They know it’s a safe environment and they won’t be made to ‘pay’ for their complaints, whether directed at me or their fellow employees," Walsh says. Complaints have ranged from, "I don’t feel supported when a really difficult client kicks up a fuss over something minor" to "The business is doing so well — isn’t it time we got a raise?"

To end on a positive note, the last half of the three-hour picnic is spent discussing possible solutions and giving one another well-deserved praise. Walsh’s staff turnover has been nonexistent for the past two years — a result, he contends, of "giving people a chance to vent — and then acting on their complaints promptly."

DO IT [top]

  1. Be receptive to complaints. Don’t react defensively even if you feel the complainant is wrong.
  2. Actively seek employee input. Tell people you want to hear their concerns because this valuable information will help the business grow.
  3. Make it easy for people to complain. Anonymity may ease their fear of penalty. They could post their comments anonymously on the company’s intranet or in a centrally located suggestion box.
  4. Never penalize complainants. If you do, you’ll silence this valuable source of information.
  5. Reward employees for their honest feedback. One CEO encourages "lively interrogation" of himself at staff meetings, and the individual asking the toughest question wins a prize.



Grievance Guide, 10th edition (Bureau of National Affairs, 2000). Wonder what outcome/solution for a grievance is most reasonable? The Grievance Guide lists decisions of arbiters in disputes on all the most sensitive labor-management-relations topics.


"How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable," by Don Wallace and Scott McMurray. Fast Company (November 1995), 146.

‘Complaint’ Headaches. AHI’s Employment Law Resource Center.

"Learn to Handle Criticism." Entrepreneur.com (October 31, 2001).

Article Contributors

Writer: Kathleen Conroy