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Training & Business Systems

How to Handle Complaints From Coworkers


If you work with anyone, whether it’s you and a business partner, or you’re a part of a team of many, it’s inevitable that people will complain from time-to-time. This is a co-working reality!

How you handle a complaint from a coworker says a lot about your organization, and it’s important to give these complaints the same attention that you would give a customer complaint. Here at Zingerman’s, we use the same steps with one another as we do with our customers – we follow our 5 Steps for Effectively Handling Customer Complaints.

  1. 1. Acknowledge the complaint
  2. 2. Sincerely apologize
  3. 3. Take action to make it right
  4. 4. Say thanks
  5. 5. Document it

When handling complaints internally, be sure to acknowledge the complaint. This starts with turning and giving your coworker your full, undivided attention. If you’re typing an email or working at a station, be sure to step away and face them. Make eye contact and actively listen to what they’re saying. We define active listening as listening for content, not just waiting for your turn to talk. Show that you’re listening to their words by making eye contact, nodding your head, repeating what they’re saying to you. This works in person, over the phone, and when working remotely. Regardless, the other person needs to be able to see and know that you’re focused on what they’re saying. If they don’t feel acknowledged and listened to, it’s hard, if not impossible, to move on to subsequent steps.

The next step is to sincerely apologize. Saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean you’re accepting fault or taking the blame, but rather acknowledging that you’re sorry to be in the situation. Apologies can go a long way on their own; if done well, people can feel your empathy for the situation and even if you can’t fix it, they know you care. It’s easy to struggle with this step – why should you apologize if you feel you’ve done nothing wrong? The apology is about recognizing the complaint and that someone isn’t happy , and you can always be sorry about that. Plus, it’s a lot harder for the other person to stay angry when you’re actively and sincerely apologizing. If you don’t believe us, try it! Saying “I’m sorry” brings the stress and tension down almost immediately in these types of interactions. While the tension likely won’t disappear completely, it almost always lessens!

Sometimes we need to stay in these first two steps for awhile – acknowledge and sincerely apologize. Rushing through them too quickly can come across as insincere and the coworker who is complaining needs to be able to make themself heard. While staying in these two steps, try sprinkling in a calming phrase, something that will help bring the tension down. You can say things like, “I can completely understand why you would feel this way” or “I feel terrible we’re in this situation.” You can try saying “Tell me more” to get the person talking more about what’s bothering them – it’s a great phrase to let them know you’re engaged.

The third step is to take action to make it right. It’s easy to get hung up on this step sometimes – it doesn’t mean you’re going to automatically make it right for your coworker – but for example, if they forgot to put in a schedule request for day off for, say, the day before Thanksgiving – you can still acknowledge and apologize that the situation is a tough one, and then help them game-plan a potential solution… “Wow, I’m so sorry – we really need everyone on the schedule that Wednesday.  You know, it looks like James has that day off, and I think he’s planning to be in town – maybe you could reach out to him?” Or if you’re in the office with a coworker and they don’t like the music you’re playing and so they complain about it, it doesn’t mean they get their way because they complained first, but you can still do the first two steps – acknowledge and sincerely apologize – and then the two of you can work together to find a middle ground. Giving great service isn’t just about saying “yes” all the time, it’s about working together to find solutions. 

The next step is to thank them for letting you know. It takes a lot of courage and gumption to go to a coworker with a complaint! It can be a lot easier to stew in it, or, worse yet, talk to another coworker about the situation. When someone makes the effort to come to you with the complaint, thank them! “Thank you so much for letting me know about it.” After all, we can’t fix the issue if we don’t know about it, right? Complaints that are never brought up or addressed rarely just go away on their own – they almost always grow bigger over time.

The final step is to document the complaint – this is where the 5 steps vary from how they’re used externally, with customers, because we don’t record internal complaints. Instead, we “go direct,” which is the policy we use at Zingerman’s when there is a complaint amongst team members. “Going direct” involves talking directly to the person we’re having the issue with. It can be tempting to talk to anyone else but the person you’re having the issue with about what’s going on, but rarely does this solve anything. In fact, it almost always makes things worse. To illustrate this point, imagine if a coworker begins to complain to you about another coworker. Using the go direct approach, try to stop them before they go too far and ask, “What did they say when you went direct with them?” More often than not, the response will sound something along the lines of “Well… I didn’t go direct, I just wanted to vent to you about it.” It can take mindfully redirecting the person complaining and coaching them to get the right words to go direct, but once they do, the issue can usually be resolved.

The benefit of using the 5 Steps with your coworkers is that it becomes second nature to use them in all interactions you have – with customers, coworkers, family members, you name it!

The 5 steps have transformed how we work with each other at Zingerman’s. Try them out next time you find yourself in such a situation, and then reach out to us – we’d love to hear how they worked for you!

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