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The company complainer wastes all of my time

I’m the controller for a small company, which means I basically do all the accounting for the firm. But I also do most of the HR work too (administering benefits, compliance, etc). I wear many “hats,” in other words – and if sounds like a lot, it is. But I love my job.

Here’s the deal: Most of my colleagues are really great, but there’s one who’s a “complainer.” He’s always pestering me with what are, in my opinion, annoying or pointless questions. Or he’s just being a pain. For instance, he consistently whines about how his mileage or cell phone reimbursement isn’t enough, yet I’ll have to nag him to get his receipts in on time (and one or two are always missing, of course!) And the other day he made some comment about a relatively small increase in our healthcare premiums, saying he’d “probably have to look into Obamacare to see if he could find something cheaper.” My problem is that I end up dealing with him a lot because of my many responsibilities, and he consumes a disproportionate amount of my time compared to his more reasonably-minded coworkers. I realize it’s all part of the job, and I’m fine with that. But I feel like he’s wasting my time unnecessarily. Is there anything I can do? – Name withheld 

It’s true. Often just a few employees—typically the most troublesome—consume most of your time.

But not in a good way.

The 80-20 rule is frequently invoked in situations like this (also known as the Pareto Principle). It states that 80 percent of a manager’s time is spent with just 20 percent of their employees, usually the lowest performing. (Another variation asserts that the top 20 percent of employees accomplish 80 percent of all organizational work.) Allocating your time in this way is widely considered to be a big mistake, however. Organizational interests are much better served when managers spend most of their time and energy on their best employees, not their worst.

But that’s not really your situation, is it? You’re not this person’s manager, after all. You just happen to be on the receiving end of his questions, comments, and complaints because of the nature of your role(s).

Let’s start with the obvious: Based on what you describe, this individual appears to be unhappy about something. Maybe it’s his job? Perhaps it has to do with work-life more broadly? Or maybe he just suffers from a general attitude of hopeless negativism? Who knows? What you can be sure of, however, is that it’s not your place to figure out. If anyone, that’s for his manager to investigate. You want him to taking up less of your time, not more.

With this in mind, here’s a tactic you might try (if you haven’t already). I call it “Giving up your power,” and it goes something like this:

The next time he complains to you about his mileage reimbursement, say something like “Hey – I’m right there with you. If it were up to me, it’d be a lot more generous…” Or “If I were in charge, we’d be all be driving company Teslas by now. So go figure…”

Then leave it at that. But if he keeps pestering you, just keep “agreeing” with him.

I find this approach to be effective for four (4) reasons:

(1) First, it acknowledges the complaint. He’s had his say, and you’ve heard him out. Often these things boil down to simply wanting to vent.

(2) By taking his side in the matter (or at least appearing to), you stay in his good graces. By commiserating with him, you appear to be sympathetic. He can’t really be mad at you, can he? After all, you’re agreeing with him.

(3) It shuts down the conversation. By taking his side in the matter, there’s really nothing left for him to say – at least to you. He can always go his manager (or yours), of course, but odds are he probably won’t. If he were, I suspect he’d have done so already. Again, this is most likely about venting, not necessarily getting his way. But if you think he will take this up the chain of command, and that’s something you’d like to avoid, this may not be the best approach. In that case, go to your own manager first. Explain what’s going on, and how you’re handling it. Frame it as something they should simply be aware of, not an actual issue. (Managers love it when you come to them with problems that don’t require them to do anything.)

(4) Finally, you’ve stood your ground. Yes – you’re saying you’re on his side, but at the same time you’re not giving in. Nor are you promising to take his demands up with management, follow up with him, or in any way further engage on the issue. The mileage (or healthcare) buck literally stops with you.

Of course, if you actually do have some say in your company’s reimbursement policies, or its healthcare premiums, this is not the approach to take. Misrepresenting yourself to anyone you work with, for any reason, or under any circumstances is never a good idea. You’d be much better off doing what you’re doing already – that is, listening to his complaints as patiently and professionally as possible.

After all, everyone—including complainers—deserve to be heard once in a while.

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