Ask Skip: Employee Openly Complains to Co-Workers About Company Management, What Can We Do About It?

We have a small professional services firm with an employee who is good at what she does but likes to gossip and say negative things about how me and my sister manager our company to other employees. We just hired two new employees and we are fearful she will plant negative seeds in the minds of our new hires.

What can we do?

You have to monitor this employee’s behavior and language closely. At the first sign of negative statements relating to how you are running the company you have to address them directly and privately with this individual.

Having employees express complaints in an open forum where they can negatively impact the attitudes of others and build a ground swell of negativity in the workplace is unacceptable. If this person has an issue, that in your mind is valid or not, it is valid for them and must be addressed.

You need to convey two things:

1)   That you are open to hearing employees complaints and work with them to have them resolved.

2)   That open complaining to other team members is unacceptable and can be grounds for dismissal.

In the discussion keep it positive, reinforce the fact that she is a valuable member of the team and show that you are open to working with this individual to resolve her issues in a way that is mutually acceptable.

Let her know that you want to keep an open dialogue at all times with her and other employees to address issues of concern. But, also let her know that you own the company and must operate it in a way that you believe is in the best interests of long-term success for all and that openly negative comments about the company’s management strategy will not be tolerating under any circumstances.

Hope that helps, write back and let us know how it proceeds.



13 thoughts on “Ask Skip: Employee Openly Complains to Co-Workers About Company Management, What Can We Do About It?

  1. Steph says:

    Great point about the “ground swell” of negativity. I’ve seent this first-hand and it can be tempting for employees to jump into the mix and express their angst as well. If it’s one creating the swell in a small office, it can cause a lot of disruption. Good luck to the owner and her sister! Hope it works out.

  2. Christine says:

    This is great advise if the comments are brought to the empolyers/oweners attention. But what can you offer to help another employee deal with peers or co-workers that are speaking badly about the company or employer? How can you advise someone to deal rightly with a co-workers slanderous speaking that my never make it to the bosses ears so to direct them to the right person to vent their issues?

  3. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Christine, You ask a great question and I appreciate you bringing it up. I think I’ll save your question ’til next week and use it as my next “Ask Skip” blog post. It will be a great follow up to this week’s question. This way we’ll make sure more people get to see it. Thank you so much for asking. I know from my prior experience where I worked the issue you raise is a huge problem, as the company principals sense what’s happening and hear it 2nd or 3rd hand and can’t really address it directly with the individual perpetrator because they make sure not to express their feelings when one of their bosses can hear. Look for the blog post next week.

  4. Tim says:


    I liked your advice. One telling thing in the scenario is that the employee is good at what she does. In my experience that is rarely the case but it would be interesting to see if the negativity is truly job-related. Unfortunately, when someone who is good at their job behaves in the way described it has more weight than someone who everyone knows is not good at what they do or not carrying their own weight.

  5. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation. It is a definite concern when someone who is a valuable team contributor begins to speak negatively. It’s my belief, though, that it is almost impossible to complain in this manner and maintain high performance. It is incongruent and causes cognitive-dissonance in an individual and it won’t be long before performance will slip. There is no way someone can be a high-performer in an organization they don’t believe in and are not happy within. It’s only a matter of time.
    Thanks, again for adding to the discussion. Please come back again.

  6. Terri says:

    Skip, I am currently dealing with someone that fits the scenario of a great performer in some areas and challenged in others. He doesn’t agree with my management decisions and was openly talking about this with other staff. I didn’t find out about this until it had reached a point of infecting others. I sensed there was a problem so we had an open to find out what was going on. This helped but now this employee is less vocal at least where he can be heard by supervisors. This employee performs just above the radar so there isn’t anything that can be “officially” documented about his performance which means he is still a sort of plague within our workplace. It has negatively affected the staff and morale so now I am struggling to get everyone back on the positive side.
    How do you overcome this hurdle?

  7. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation. This is a great question and not an easy situation to resolve but there are a number of things you can do.

    I would take this as a great opportunity and do everything in your power to create the type of work environment where this person becomes an outlier. You have to find who your champions are in your workforce and have them build up the rest of the team members so that they drown out the other individual and their comments fall on deaf ears.

    Also, you need to create an environment where the expectation is that you are open to feedback from employees regarding issues that negatively impact their work experience, then communicate with them as to what you can accommodate and what you can’t and why. By doing this, there will be a formal process for this individual to follow and make it clear to other team members that subversive, undermining comments will not be tolerated and all types of comments like that should be directed through it. In this way you create a solution focused team that has no time for blaming, complaining and whining.

    Just creating an environment of this open dialogue will go a long way to having people feel “heard, and respected” and part of influencing their own work environment making them more engaged in it.

    I recently did a project like I am describing with a regional bank in my area and got people talking to each other across the region who never before would communicate with each other because of territorial jealousies, etc. and were afraid to speak up to identify issues getting in their way because past experience showed them nothing would be done about it. AFter six months, I met last week with my client who informed me that they have maintained momentum and are expecting a 100% increase in sales productivity in the first 1/3 of the year over same period last year because of this enhanced work environment.

    Hope that helps. If you’d like more specific strategies on dealing with you specific issue feel free to sign up for one of my complimentary Leadership & Workplace Communication Assessment sessions at this link

  8. Alan says:

    Interesting discussion Skip. From the other side though, what happens when you are the employee and management tends to take questioning about the way things are running as personal attack? There are lots of things about the organisation I work in that are terrific, but two way communication between the chief and the indians is poor. The chief tends to get defensively aggressive very easily, to the point where many of the workers – myself included – now find it easier just to keep our heads down because the rest of the job, and the co-workers, and the place where we all live; outweigh the negatives of working with the boss. It’s all very well to say ‘be assertively positive / positively assertive’, but past experience has shown that the road of least resistance is much less emotionally shredding.

  9. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    You ask a very valid question. This is, or should be, a 2-way street. Leadership needs to be open to feedback about what’s happening in their culture, how the decisions they make and their communication style impact their team members and customers. Unfortunately, working in an environment such as you suggest is not good. It is not a positive work environment and also is negatively impacting company results as despite having good employees who do the right thing, they won’t do the extra thing and/or go the extra mile. They may not think for themselves and contribute ideas to make the customer and co-worker experience better because low morale kills motivation, energy and desire.

    Unfortunately, unless someone truly understands the impact of their behavior they will not be open to change. But, you always have 3 choices in any situation in how you respond:

        Try to influence – this means being assertive and communicating the issues to the organizational leaders in a way that connects with what’s most important to them and to show them how their communication style is not achieving those desired results. Try to find someone who the leader trusts and will listen to and influence them to get the message through to them, but it has to be frame correctly and done with empathy and compassion, not accusation and blaming or the individual will shut down.

        Accept it – and accept it without resentment by just letting it go and working in that environment because its the best thing to do focusing on those good things the organization does provide.
        Remove Yourself – this means leaving the organization for a better situation at the earliest possible time or begin working towards it.

    Hope that helps. Good luck and let me know how else I can help in your situation.

  10. chittranjan says:

    Ours is a small company but some times we do face such situation.

    We do the following:

    1) Try to ascertain that it is a fact or it is another gossip by some one else who may be out to get on the accused employee.
    2) If it found true, we confront the complaining/negative talking employee and counsel her/him against doing such professionally unethical way of behaving in the office.
    3) Give her/him some time to readjust her behaviour.
    4) If there is no change, she is warned of punitive action including dismissal.
    5) Call a meeting of all employees and explain the situation and, then the last action comes,
    6) No change, ask him/her to quite.
    7) We refuse to give her a “good behavior” testimonial. Just issue a relieving letter without any negative or positive comment and leave it to the next employer to interpret the silence on the issue of her/his performance (good/bad)

  11. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving the detail process you apply in these situations.
    It sounds like a great approach, respecting the person with the challenge while confronting it
    directly and giving them the opportunity to adjust. Please come back and comment again.

  12. Al says:

    All of these replies don’t really seem to be effective communication, more like heavy handed management. I’ve seen many good employees meet a wall of silence from management and feel frustrated that no one is listening. And your suggestions really boil down to “Like it or lump it”. Must be nice to have the freedom to be able to jump to a new job at the drop of a hat.

    If management is blind and deaf to their employee dissatisfaction, do you think that maybe, just maybe, management bears some of the blame?
    People are people, they need and want to be heard. Rather than axe them because they went to someone else when you wouldn’t listen, open up a bit more hear what they’re saying and at least pretend that you care.

    My primary goal in management was listening and making sure my staff knew that. There was never a shrug of the shoulders and an “oh well” response to their concerns. I heard, discussed and tried to come to a resolution. Sure it’s not always possible, but any reply is better than none.

  13. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thank you for your comment and adding value to this discussion.

    To answer your question, management has a direct responsibility to be open to hearing feedback from their employees and addressing it directly.

    My advice was to “convey that you are open to hearing employees complaints and work with them to have them resolved.”

    The second was that complaining to others in the company is unacceptable because just complaining to others who can not solve the problems is not just ineffective but inappropriate.

    People complain to others because they either, 1) don’t have the confidence and self-esteem to directly confront issues, or 2) management has not shown a willingness to listen and hear complaints in the past and address them, and maybe even offered punitive responses, thus teaching people that bringing issues up is not going to be positively addressed.

    Or both of those things may be happening.

    Your comment, “My primary goal in management was listening and making sure my staff knew that. There was never a shrug of the shoulders and an “oh well” response to their concerns. I heard, discussed and tried to come to a resolution. Sure it’s not always possible, but any reply is better than none.”

    is exactly what I meant in my point #1 in my original response in the blog above.

    Hope that clarifies my advice and approach to this situation. AGain, thank you for stopping by and being inspired to leave a comment. Please come back and do so again!

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