It’s one of the drawbacks of working with other people: complaining. People are always complaining about something.
People will complain about the weather, family, sports teams, and bosses (but not when the boss is around!).
The challenge is when your co-workers start to complain about you.
Deal openly and politely with co-workers who complain about you. If you hear a complaint directly, join the conversation and say, “I am always open to suggestions for improving myself. Feel free to do so later in private.”
Reasons Why Employees Complain About Each Other
There are many reasons why co-workers complain about each other. Some co-workers complain about their fellow employees as a means of venting personal frustrations, whether because of situations that happen at work (bad relations with the boss, heavy workload, a lack of promotion) or personal matters.
Other co-workers complain because they think that they will improve their standing with the management by keeping their fellow employees in line by pointing out any errors or grievances (justified or not). Other complaints are very rule-oriented and intent on ensuring that their fellow employees work and behave in a similar manner.
Many times, complaining emerges from jealousy or a perception that the work environment is not fair or as meritocratic as one might desire, regardless of whether someone is performing in an exemplary manner.
Additional reasons for complaining among co-workers could be because a co-worker doesn’t understand why a fellow co-worker is doing something differently. Ultimately, there are some people who are vindictive, self-sabotaging, or petty and willing to smear other people in order to improve their standing or to compensate for a latent psychological disturbance.
Understanding why people complain about each other can help guide how you handle the situation and how you can effectively find a resolution to a complaining co-worker.
What to Do When a Co-Worker Complains to You Directly
If a co-worker approaches you directly with a complaint, the first thing that you need to do is listen to what the person is saying. Then, once the person is finished speaking, repeat what the person has said out loud: “I don’t like it when you bring your smelly lunch into the office.”
When repeating the complaint out loud, the co-worker who is complaining may recognize how ridiculous the complaint is.
Sometimes, when you hear someone else’s concerns, you can immediately find a solution to the problem even though the means of presentation aren’t too forthcoming. For example, you might say as a means of compromising:
“Oh, well I’ll put my lunch in the fridge then”
When directly presented with a complaint from a fellow co-worker, you can also ask the co-worker what he or she would like you to do instead. If a co-worker says something like “You’re asking too many questions” you can respond by saying:
“Well, how would you like me to get clarification on the projects I’ve been assigned?”
If the co-worker just shrugs, then you know that you are dealing with someone who is simply jealous of how you are performing.
As a sarcastic/joking comment to diffuse the situation you can say something like:
“I’ll make sure to only ask the questions that you want to ask”
You can also try to change the subject completely by offering a compliment or asking them a question:
“Hey, what are your plans for the weekend?”
If the co-worker looks perturbed, you can clarify by saying that you are just asking a question (which you’re good at!).
If you are presented with a concern or complaint from a fellow co-worker, it may be a somewhat legitimate concern. For example, a co-worker might say “I think you need to show up on time” if you come in a few minutes late habitually, or “You need to make sure that you park in your parking space” if you are extended into another space.
Sometimes, we make mistakes, and other people aren’t as forthright or polite when addressing them.
If you have erred, then you can simply say:
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll make sure to come in on time/ park in my space. Thanks for letting me know.”
In such situations, if it is a correctible error, the situation is usually resolved.
In other instances, there may be a misunderstanding regarding a collaborative project or assignment. A co-worker may come up to you and inform you “You aren’t doing a good job on this project.”
If you feel like you are putting in the effort and contributing to the group, then ask your co-worker:
“What do you think I should do?”
If the co-worker is sincere in improving the group effort, then this would be a less-than-savory means of creating a collaborative environment to find a resolution to the problem.
You can even recommend that they meet more regularly to discuss concerns with any project so that they can be resolved. If the co-worker doesn’t offer any recommendations, then it’s a good idea to just nod politely and say:
“Thank you for your input”
Then just wait for management to determine how well a project is being done.
What to Do When a Co-Worker Complains About You Indirectly
Sometimes, co-workers will complain indirectly about you among themselves or even to management.
If you overhear complaining about you, then you can choose to ignore it as office gossip or you can spontaneously interject yourself into a conversation while your co-workers are talking about you.
Randomly appearing can also make others realize how petty their efforts are and they will probably move on to other topics. Other times, interjecting yourself into a conversation may allow you to show a different side of yourself, particularly if you tend to work on different projects or get assigned different workloads.
Many times, people tend to dislike others based on a perception that is founded on an assumption, but once they get to know someone better, they often realize that they were misguided.
If a manager speaks to you about any complaints, it’s best to address these situations in a calm and constructive manner. Most managers will quickly dismiss any office gossip that is based on someone trying to brownnose and improve their standing or if it is based on any petty concerns.
Further, if an employer or manager can clearly see that you are following rules and working productively when they observe you, any reports of lapses in conduct given by your co-workers can be dismissed when you acknowledge that you always follow the rules.
If there are any more severe accusations or claims, then it’s best to clarify the question and express your position. If a co-worker says that you aren’t contributing to projects or you are disturbing the office environment, then you can demonstrate what work you’ve done to date or even record a video of you working to show to your managers.
Given how much recording technology is used for the remote workforce, any effort on your behalf to proactively record what’s going on will provide further evidence on your behalf.
What to Do If a Co-Worker Doesn’t Stop Complaining About You
Sometimes, particularly if the person complaining about you is not combative but is simply dealing with some other stresses, you can approach this person during a calm period of the day and address the situation directly.
Saying something like
“I’m aware that you aren’t happy with me and I’m not sure what I did to you.”
This person will very likely address the situation directly and express the reason for their complaint. If it is something that you can change, then you can assure him or her that you will address the situation promptly. If it is an empty claim or the person doesn’t respond, then just thank your co-worker for listening.
Quite often, people who are addressed in a direct and polite manner will recognize that their complaints are out of line.
You can also try asking the person who is complaining if there is something else that’s going on. Sometimes, people are bothered by outside events and vent their frustrations on those around them.
In such instances, you lending an ear may actually help to strengthen the relationship and allow the co-worker to begin to resolve the issues that are prompting the complaints directed towards you.
If a co-worker doesn’t stop complaining to you directly or indirectly, then it’s best to approach the situation directly.
You can find a specific time during the day, either at lunch or after work if you have a collective departure time, and ask to speak with the person directly. In such instances, particularly if you have a supportive co-worker, it’s best to invite the other co-worker as a witness or to lend some credence to your character.
You may also want to approach your employer or manager so that you can have a third party and everyone is aware of the situation.
When a situation escalates to this level, it’s best to state your concerns directly:
“I don’t know why this person is constantly complaining about me because I have done nothing to this person. I would like this to stop.”
You can then ask the co-worker who is complaining about you why he or she is complaining about you. The co-worker may recognize the severity of their accusations, particularly if a manager has to take time out of his or her day to address the office drama.
Your co-worker may offer a justification for his or her actions: “This person creates a really disruptive environment” or “This person isn’t doing their fair share.”
If the manager regularly monitors the working environment and progress and is aware of what you are contributing, any false claims can easily be dismissed and the other co-worker will be forced to resign to not being so petty. Such instances would also likely backfire regarding any prioritization for special work projects or for promotions.
In the end, being direct, respectful, and attentive to any comments or issues against you can allow you to directly and swiftly find a way to stop your co-workers from constantly complaining about you.
Katie Haynes is a senior author at everyday-courtesy.com with over 15 years of experience in marketing and psychology. As a freelance consultant, she also supports companies and executives in overcoming communication challenges. Katie is a passionate digital nomad working on her first book on the art of communication.