And what do you want me to do about this?

I am an HR manager. I have employees who come to me with complaints about their supervisors and these supervisors are also my confidants as managers on the management team I am on. Do I keep their complaints to myself or share with the manager that I think will fix the issue with no problem?

Employees whine. Managers whine. Evil HR Lady whines incessantly because she has a bad cold and cannot breathe properly. (No, it is not Swine Flu, or any flu. It is a cold, but if you want to feel sorry for me and make me dinner, please do. I really, really really dislike squash and mayonnaise. And don’t tell me that the reason I don’t like squash is because I’ve never tried YOUR recipe for squash delight, I won’t like it. I will, politely accept it, thank you, and then try to force my family to eat it while declaring, “Squash is good for you!” Then we’ll all have spaghetti.)

Anyway, a little digression. You need to figure out what your job is. I’ll help. Your job is to help the business.

Think about that for a minute.

Your job is to help the business. You need to do what will help the business.

First, erase from your mind the idea that you are a therapist who is here to “help” people. You help people because it’s good for the business. You have an EAP (I hope) to provide help with people’s psyches. (Again, why? Because it’s good for the business.) When someone comes to you with a complaint about their manager, feel free to say, “And what would you like me to do with that bit of information?”

Sometimes it is just venting. If it’s not a real problem, fine, you’re done. They’ve vented and feel better and you can move on to other things.

If it’s a real problem, then you need to decide where the problem lies–with the complainer or the complainee. And then you need to figure out how it’s best for the business to fix it. If that means going to the manager, go to the manager. If that means working the employee, work with the employee. If that means developing a company wide memo on how picking your nose and examining the finds during meetings is inappropriate, go for it.

You aren’t required to keep confidences like a lawyer is. You do, however, want people to trust you so that you can help. That’s why I find the “and what do you want me to do about this?” question so helpful. (Said sincerely, not snottily, of course.)

The solutions vary based on the problem. Some solutions are to coach the complainer on how to approach the complainee. Another time, it’s best to pull the manager aside and tell him/her what is going on. Sometimes, you do nothing but listen. Sometimes you launch a formal investigation. Things that are illegal cannot be ignored. Things that are annoying can be.

If you truly think the manager will “fix the problem,” let the complainer know, and then go ahead and tell. I don’t like blindsiding people. (Now, if it’s something that can be fixed without telling someone who the complainer is, you can do it that way.)

You need to be absolutely trustworthy. This is why you tell people what you are going to do with their information. You don’t need to be everybody’s friend. You also need to figure out what you can and cannot fix. Things that you cannot fix, you can leave alone.

Fixes do not always involve other people. Often the best fixes come from coaching the complainer to deal with their own problems.

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16 thoughts on “And what do you want me to do about this?

  1. Suzanne- I've had a situation where a senior manager came up to me because his group was complaining about having issues with one of their colleague's body odor. Apparently it was very distracting to those who worked around her. What would you have done in this situation? I'm still curious to see if we've dealt with it in the right way.

  2. Anonymous: I'd coach the manager on how to address it himself.

    EHRL: Now, I hate squash more than any other food — HATE IT – but I recently discovered spaghetti squash, and it does not taste like squash. You cook it, slice it open, and there's a pile of spaghetti in there. You eat it with butter, salt and pepper, and some parmesean and it's seriously delicious. Not squash-like in any way. It's like magic.

  3. It might seem reasonable for the people we work with to have the expectation up front that we're looking out for what's best for the business.

    If a person wants to have a really confidential conversation with us, they'll just have to know that we can't decide on that confidentiality level until after we hear the issue.

    If they can't take that chance, the complainer needs to speak with someone else.

  4. AAM–don't lie to me about spaghetti squash. I've had it and it's still squash. Nasty.

    Okay, it's been at least 18 years since I've had it (I left my parent's home 18 years ago, and I certainly wouldn't cook such an abomination), so maybe my memory is faulty.

    Still, why not eat REAL spaghetti? Hmmmm?

  5. Well, it has no fat, carbs, or cholesterol, but that's not my real reason, since I'm a lost cause in that department. Mainly I like it because it's so weird — spaghetti does not belong inside a squash and yet there it is.

    I am cooking one RIGHT NOW, inspired by this.

  6. Okay, I feel terrible that I've inspired someone to cook squash! Blech.

    And yes, I'm totally prejudice. The same way I won't eat Horse–which is very popular here in Switzerland. I don't care if it's delicious. I'm not gonna try it.

    Blech. Now I feel nauseated. Of course, it's all this snot draining into my stomach. (Sorry, I don't mean to put negative thoughts into your dinner.)

  7. i had a boss once (not an EHRP), who used to come by my office every so often. I would occasionally start to rant about something and he would, politely, stop me and say, "Is this something you want me to fix, or are you just venting?".

    Inevitably, i would pause, and say, "No, just venting" and then continue.

    Best boss I ever had.

  8. Squash is just outright wrong on spaghetti.

    Oh and EHRL, what if the employee you ask the 'what would you like me to do with this information' isnt quiet sure themselves what they expect… I've had cases when they have complained wanting a solution but want to avoid getting anyone involved (sometimes the solution involves talking to someone about their behavior for example and they don't want to get that person in trouble)… Any suggestions :S

  9. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to turn it back on the complainer. "I can't do anything without revealing this information. Do you have another suggestion? Or do you need help in dealing with it yourself?"

    EHRL, I agree with you on the squash. I will not even grow them in my garden.

  10. I got tricked into eating horse when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile by the old "but it's our CULTURE and don't you want to be sensitive to our INDIGENOUS CULTURE?" gambit. Now I would just say, "Nope. I'm insensitive," but then, I was brainwashed.

    As far as helping the business, my husband was raised by wolves — I mean by a unionized college professor and an environmental activist, ie, by parents who did not earn their living from for-profit enterprises, so when he has a customer service problem, he thinks all he needs to do is to appeal to the company's better nature as opposed to their desire to make money.

    "You think it's all about MONEY," he'll say to me after he's explained that they should do X because "it's the right thing to do."

    "It is," I'll answer calmly. "It is."

  11. I suspect that saying, "What do you want me to do about this?" suggests to the complainer that you will, in fact, actually do something about this. That can't always happen. It may seem like a small semantic difference, but maybe the language needs to be more along the lines of, "What do you think the ideal outcome would be?" or "What would you do in this situation if you were me?" – something along those lines, because asking what the complainer wants and then failing to deliver it is only going to give him something else to bitch about, right?

  12. Figment: you don't put the squash ON the spaghetti. You use the spaghetti squash IN LIEU OF the spaghetti. If you put outright spaghetti sauce on the spaghetti squash, you're havin' a party.

    Horse is just wrong. I won't eat My Friend Flicka.

    Whenever I've done any employee relations, I've always cautioned the complainer outright that sometimes, to fix the problem, I have to use their name outright. Always avoid it if I can, but sometimes you can't.

    Instead of saying:"What would you like me to do?" you can say, "Well, here are the variety of things that could happen now, given what you've told me…" and then list the options with the pros and cons.

    I think the point is you really want to involve the complainer in the solution to the extent possible. The ER rep isn't Mr. Fixit. More like Ms. Facilitator.

  13. Does anyone watch The Office? In one episode, Michael (the manager) finds out that employee complaints to HR have not been going anywhere. He asks Toby (the HR guy) how he deals with complaints, and Toby says "I listen to the complaints, we discuss, the person feels like they've been heard, and then they forget about the issue". He then files the stacks of complaints away in a box.

    I laughed, but it's so true. I do always ask if the person wants me to get involved in the situation, 9 times out of 10, the answer is no, they just wanted to vent and get someone else's perspective/thoughts.

    In that particular episode, Michael decides to try to resolve some of the complaints that were taken, and it causes pandemonium and conflict in the office because none of those people wanted their complaints to go anywhere, they just wanted to talk to someone.

  14. Suzanne, your comment about HR's job being to help the business is so on point. That should be the measure for everyone in the org – keeps everyone aligned.

  15. Look, folks, there are those ees in every organization who seemingly live to vent and spew all over any one who will listen — learn to nod your head and express appropriate facial expressions of ‘sincere understanding’. Then, if what they've 'shared' with you is not a matter of an employment law or work rule violation, theirs or another's, then thank them for 'sharing'. Then give them feedback on how they can effectively 'share' those concerns with the other party involved.

    If they want you to become the mediator or mouthpiece for their personal conflict with the other party, DO NOT DO IT!

    Remember, if there is no legal component or work rule issue involved, then it's just a personality conflict that they must learn to handle.

    Bottom line: HR has more important things to attend to then becoming involved with individual or group pissing contests — make THAT point clear, in a polite but explicit fashion, to your whiner, er uh, I mean, concerned employee.

  16. "First, erase from your mind the idea that you are a therapist who is here to 'help' people. You help people because it's good for the business."

    And you'll screw 'em right over if it's good for the business, too. That's what HR is all about.

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