Article Date: 6/1/2006

The Complaint Dept. is Closed
What do you do when employee complaints threaten your workplace?
Jim Thomas

Confucius posed a solution for complaining over 2,000 years ago when he said, "It's better to light a small candle than curse the darkness." Comparing the number of candles to curses we observe on any given day, I think it's safe to say that few heed his advice.

Left unmanaged, complaints can sabotage a practice. Yet they can also represent the first step in creating a productive, team-based atmosphere.

Yes, we have no complaints

My experiences in office politics lead me to believe that an effective way to reduce complaints is to ban them. Set ground-rules to encourage constructive approaches to issues — approaches that demonstrate a positive attitude as well as respect for other team members.

It's likely that staff will require on-the-job training to fully understand the rules. For example, an office manager might remark, "When it comes to checking in patients, Fran is the worst I've ever seen." The statement hits the trifecta: It doesn't offer a solution, a positive outlook or respect.

In private, ask the office manager if she/he can explain the cause of the problem and recommend a solution.

You can also ask if the office manager if she has addressed the problem with Fran. Based on the responses, you can provide direction: "Discuss this with Fran. Ask her for suggestions on how we can make her more proficient at checking in patients."

If at first you don't succeed...

You'll need to give additional instructions if the responses miss the mark, as in the case of, "Fran just doesn't care," or if Fran were to "counter-complain" about her "overbearing office manager." (You can ask that both employees return with a solution together, which would encourage teamwork and reduce the number of behind-the-back comments.)

A move in the right direction is a response such as, "I spoke to Fran and we'd like to propose solutions for improving performance at the front desk." Acknowledge that staff presented a sensitive issue in a positive, productive manner. Let them know your confident that they will handle future issues with the same level of professionalism. Also notice that throughout the scenario, the optometrist never reprimanded or complained about the complainer.

This approach usually requires an enthusiastic, focused effort at first. And admittedly, it's not the only solution that I've found effective. My father got great mileage out of "Stop the whining, now!" If there's a common variable, it's that each system requires a strong role model.

Optometric Management, Issue: June 2006