The Fear: A Look at Employees’ Reluctance to Complain in Tough Times

Fran S.

Fran S.

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If my workload mix is any indication, investigations are down. Last year, I did over fifty investigations between January and September, and between September and December, only a handful. While I am pleased to engage in other services for my clients, I have to consider the reason for the change in the project mix. 

Are people happier? Have employers become enlightened and learned to engage and motivate their people? Has there been a quantum reduction in employee misconduct? Perhaps, but more likely we have entered a period in which people are just darned glad to have a job.  You can see the change in mindset in many places. 

For instance, I frequent a woman’s running forum, where we share lots of things besides running. One of our regulars has been having trouble with her job, and some of the trouble seems to involve serious bullying by a supervisor.  Whereas a year ago, the assertive posters on that forum might have directed her to speak up, to complain, or even to quit and find something else, the general advice was, “in this economy, maybe you’d better just figure out how to survive it.”  The economy has everyone scared, and that fear has simply magnified the fear intrinsic to so many employees — the logic, or illogic that reflexively says, “I can’t complain about my boss’s behavior — they’ll fire me.”

For years, the reflexive instinct that employers will punish complainers has been fascinating to me.  Of course, the fear is not unfounded, or there would be no need for laws protecting employees from retaliation — yet the number of cases I see in which employers are astutely avoiding even a semblance of retaliation far outweigh those incidents suggesting that an employee has been punished for speaking up.  Nevertheless, the longstanding fear of complaining has something I have worked with many organizations to overcome.  Now, with employees feeling simply lucky to have a job at all, employers should not get complacent and assume that all is well.  Those that view the silence as positive do so at their own peril.

It is worth considering that an employee experiencing bad behavior by others, but who does not complain about it is not a good thing.  It is inevitable, in the absence of a change, that the unhappy employee’s productivity and engagement will diminish.  As time passes and productivity and engagement continue to drop, the employee might be subject to progressive counseling or disciplinary action.  Faced with such action, the employee may finally surface the now-longstanding concerns, forcing the employer to have to unravel the “chicken and egg” of alleged bad behavior and a seemingly “bad” employee.  The numbers tell the truth:  over 50 percent of employees who raise complaints of harassment have some sort of performance or disciplinary issue going on at the time of the complaint. When the complaint involves alleged unlawful behavior,  the employer becomes hamstrung between continuing to correct the performance issues and appearing retaliatory.  In many cases, despite attempts to keep things contained, the situation becomes complex and demoralizing to others.  Suddenly, the cost of the problem becomes more than that of one employee’s productivity — it becomes a matter that has effectively handcuffed performance management at a time when managing performance is imperative.

The average length of time between an employee’s recognition of a problem and reporting it as alleged harassment is 16 months, and that is a number culled from a healthy economy.  With worries about job security and a job market that is on its last gasp, one might argue that the pressure to keep one’s problems to one’s self has increased geometrically. One might also think that silence is golden.  People are keeping their heads down and doing their job, right? Think again.

In a shrinking workforce, the impact of a single unhappy employee is proportionately greater. In a smaller workgroup, viral unhappiness spreads more quickly. In stressed workers, conflict can be the final blow to diminishing morale.  More than ever, employers need to be proactive in attending to working conditions and relationships, to encourage employees to speak up and to train managers and supervisors to use intake skills that will demonstrate their willingness to address problems at the earliest possible moment.  In the most receptive* workplace cultures, supervisors, managers and human resources personnel understand that an employee complaint is a good thing.  It is an opportunity to address a problem before it becomes a factor in performance, productivity, and engagement.  It is an opportunity to gain the trust of employees.  It is an opportunity to win loyalty and improve working conditions. Supporting and training managers in eliciting and responding to employee concerns is not a “frill” that should go away in a declining economy, but an imperative that should be placed at the highest priority.

In the tense times of declining resources, as many organizations scramble for survival, it makes more sense than ever to be sure that employees are giving you their best work.  Maintaining an open door and an open mind to the challenges of human interaction may provide that tiny competitive advantage that can make the difference.

*using a cultural dyad of “receptive” versus “deflective” cultures


Fran S.

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