From the October 2002 issue of Startups

All of us in business have a pretty good feel for handling customer complaints--we tend to take most complaints serious, and we look for solutions. But when an employee has a complaint, we freeze up. Some employers even develop negative thoughts about the complaining employee: How could he be so ungrateful? Doesn't she realize everything I try to do for her?

Well, it's time to step back and think of your employees as customers--because in a very real sense, they are. Just because they're employees is no reason to think any less of their complaints than you would a grievance from one of your best customers.

Most employee complaints fall into one of three categories: complaints about other employees, complaints about the quality of the product or service the company provides, or complaints about their own work situation--pay, hours and respect, to name a few.

Of course, the first one is the most difficult to deal with. Because someone other than the complaining employee is involved, you have to approach this situation in a serious and professional manner. You need to carefully listen so you can determine exactly what the grievance is. And you must be honest with the employee--say that you're very concerned about the issue he or she is bringing to your attention and that you're going to investigate it by talking with the other party and other employees who might have insight. It's critical that the employee knows you'll pursue the issue, but that you're going to get all sides of the story. Then, do just that. Your findings will determine the action you should take, if any, and you must inform the employee as to your decision and how it was reached. Make a final offer to listen to the complaint again. Do so and then implement your decision and move on. Don't allow the voiced complaint to fester.

Some business owners are fortunate to have employees who care enough about the quality of the company's products or services that they'll bring problems to the attention of supervisors and managers. Whether you have a suggestion box, an open door policy or some other method that encourages employees to bring quality issues to you, be certain that you or someone you trust explore each one. During the process, keep the employee informed at every step. And whether you find the complaint to be valid or not, remind your employee how much you appreciate the effort that's been made. Should the complaint be confirmed, reward the employee in some way--it can be as simple as a heap of praise, tickets to a popular event or cash. But most important, thank the employee in front of his or her co-workers and in the company newsletter or e-mail. Let him know how valuable the information was in fixing a problem, and use the occasion to remind all employees that quality comes ahead of all else and that you welcome input from each of them.

When the complaint involves an employee's work situation, it's usually quite easy to resolve--even if it involves salary. Let me rephrase that: especially if it involves salary. When it comes to employee pay rates, every company should have two things: a payroll grid that lists the various jobs and their pay ranges (with ranges based on such things as regular employee evaluations and tenure) and a way to deviate from the grid for truly outstanding performance. You need to keep from hiding behind an inflexible pay structure. Complaints that don't involve wages need to be handled similarly to the way you would handle an employee complaining about a co-worker--gather the facts, report your findings to the employee, implement your decision and move on.

In the end, when it comes to any employee complaint, don't leave the employee with the impression that you take it lightly. But be sure to make a silent evaluation as to its importance and seriousness so you'll know how much time should be devoted to the complaint. And if you remember to treat employee complaints as you treat customer complaints, most of the time you'll make the right decision.

Learn More

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Rod Walsh and Dan Carrison are the founding partners of Semper Fi Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California and the authors of Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way.