The Office
THE OFFICE

Fine Whines

Encouraging your employees to voice their complaints--and doing something about them--might effectively boost your company's morale.
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What some people call "challenges" I like to think of as "problems."  Still, I can't argue with the dictum that an unhappy customer creates the opportunity to win a lifelong fan. Doubters should read Jeff Jarvis's excellent new book "What Would Google Do?" Twigged off by a buggy laptop and maddening service from Dell, Jarvis amassed an online "antifan club," excoriating the PC maker across the blogosphere. By acknowledging criticisms and—prepare yourselves—actually fixing things, "Dell transformed itself from worst to first in the era of customer control," writes Jarvis. Customer complaints correct companies. I [Heart] Squeaky Wheels.

So why doesn't the same principle apply to employees? CEOs rank workers close to customers on their lists of most-cherished constituents. Yet I've seen few truly effective methods for eliciting staff complaints. Maybe employee problems are tougher than customer problems; maybe employers see less risk in alienating workers. Whatever the reason, in-house criticism is often barely tolerated, let alone encouraged. Malcontents murder morale. I [Heart] Stoics.

I know: every year the CEO hands out the employee satisfaction survey and her very own 360-degree review. But little relief flows from blackening a circle beneath an emotionally neutral statement. ("In general, I believe compensation and benefits are fair:  Strongly agree; Agree; No opinion; Disagree; Strongly Disagree.") Only a few intrepid souls will fill in the "Additional Comments" box with statements that might be traced. "You're working us like galley slaves!" "Stop promoting incompetents!" "I've been here 14 years and you still can't pronounce my name!" Things aren't so different from the days when workers disguised their handwriting on the scraps of paper they deposited in the Suggestion Box.

Some bosses are approachable about anything; but many aren't. Employees worry less about being fired than about straining relations with leadership. Particularly in an entrepreneurial company, criticism of the culture or specific policies comes across as criticism of the CEO. Employees may be eager to avoid conflict, or hesitant about appearing ungrateful to a boss they generally like and respect.

When the heat's not lowered, though, steam escapes. As with customer anger, worker discontent increasingly migrates online. Most employees are too smart to rant on personal blogs and Facebook pages. But sites like Glassdoor.com and Vault.com provide anonymous venting venues for the disgruntled (and good wholesome entertainment for the rest of us).

If employees are too uncomfortable to complain individually and too disorganized for a group gripe, the best bet may be office intelligence. A manager noticing sullenness among service reps, for example, might through casual questioning uncover unhappiness with the new 15-calls-per-hour metric. He presents the problem--stripped of emotion and of the complainers' identities—to the CEO. For this to work, CEOs must hire managers emotionally intelligent enough to recognize slumping morale and honest and discreet enough to win employees' trust. No fawners or political animals need apply.

The CEO calls a meeting, apologizes if appropriate, and explains how she will fix the problem. Do that consistently and your unhappy employees will become lifelong fans.

Last updated: Nov 3, 2009

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor at Large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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