Handling employee complaints may be one of the most difficult parts of an employer’s or HR manager’s job. Messy or disruptive employees can cause a tense work environment. But at the same time, you have to figure out how to separate legitimate employee complaints from personal pet peeves. Here are tips on what to do when you encounter a tense work environment.
Don’t Jump to Conclusions
Remember that you’re hearing only one side of the story. Unless multiple employees come to you about the same person, it can be difficult to determine if a complaint is a pet peeve or a real issue. If you can’t determine if this is a serious situation or just a clash of personalities, you might want to investigate further or monitor the situation. Ask the complaining employee for tangible examples, like missed deadlines, poor work attendance or mistakes on projects, instead of intangible examples like attitudes. Make sure you get specific details. You don’t want to assume something is minor, only to find out later that it was a sexual harassment or bullying situation.
Let Them Work It Out Together
If the issue isn’t serious, you might be better off asking the employees to work out their grievances together. Instead of stepping in, give the complaining employee ideas about how to approach the situation constructively. If this has been going on for a while with no resolution, you might need to host a “chaperoned” meeting between the two. And remember, some employees monitor things like co-workers being a few minutes late for work or other minor issues because they want to score points with the boss. Be on the lookout for these situations and don’t encourage it. When employees are “spying” on one another, it hurts team morale.
Sometimes Separation Is the Best Answer
If the issue is a matter of clashing personalities or different work styles—such as one employee having meetings or phone calls that are disrupting the other—consider separating them. Move one employee to a different workstation or part of the office. Have them work on separate projects that don’t require too much interaction. Give one employee noise-canceling headphones to help tune out the other. Personality clashes can sometimes be solved with simple, non-combative solutions like these that show you value both employees.
Use Tact if an Employee Is Messy and Distracting
Sometimes the problem is more “hygienic,” such as an employee keeping a very messy workstation. In open work environments, this can be very disruptive. Sit the employee down and ask what you can do to help her be more organized. Perhaps buying a small cabinet or shelves for the work area might help. Remember that sometimes messiness can be a sign of depression or distraction. Ask the employee if anything’s troubling her outside of work. If your company has an employee assistance program that includes confidential counseling, now might be a good time to mention this option.
A Disruptive Employee Should Be Addressed
Sometimes issues aren’t minor and a disruptive employee is creating a difficult, aggressive work environment. In those situations, you need to address the problem head on or it will likely get worse. Sit down with the employee and talk about what’s going on, explaining the company’s policy on the complaints. Give the employee time to explain things from his viewpoint. You’ll want to know if he understands the company’s expectations and if he’s experiencing any obstacles beyond his control. Make sure your meeting is private (although you may need one witness present). At the end, lay out what changes you’re expecting and in what time frame. Then schedule a follow-up and explain the consequences if improvements aren’t made.
Remember, when handling employee complaints, it’s tough to tell early on if it is a minor personality difference, an issue that could lead to lost productivity or an issue that creates a hostile work environment and has legal implications. So when complaints start coming to you, document everything. Keep notes on complaints, warnings, actions taken and meetings. In some situations, you can talk to the offending employee and request changes.
But sometimes, a situation may be so bad that someone has to be let go. You’ll want to avoid that, but should that option become inevitable, you will want a clear, detailed record if it ever comes down to that.