One of a manager’s hardest tasks: Dealing with a difficult employee who’s constantly making frivolous complaints. What can supervisors do without being accused of retaliation?
A recent court case involved an employee who didn’t get along with his boss or his co-workers. He claimed his supervisor treated him different than younger, female employees.
Throughout his employment, he filed several complaints with management and HR. For example, he alleged:
- his supervisor refused to take his suggestions during staff meetings
- his work was monitored more closely than other workers’, and
- a performance review that labeled him as a difficult employee was the result of age and gender bias.
HR investigated each complaint, but could find no evidence of discrimination. The conclusion: The employee was “sensitive to feedback” and needed to work out his personal conflict with his supervisor. After each investigation, he was told to improve the relationship and “move on.”
Can manager discipline constant complainer?
The company began outsourcing some of its operations and had to shrink the employee’s department. He was one of the employees chosen to be terminated.
He sued, claiming he was treated unfairly because of his gender and fired in retaliation for his complaints.
The company argued that all of the employee’s complaints were handled properly and the company issued appropriate responses. The constant complaints were disrupting the workplace, so the employee was asked to improve the relationship with his boss.
Who won the case? Answer: the company. The court ruled the complaints and the termination weren’t connected.
The judge took the situation for what it was: The company disciplined — and then chose to get rid of — a difficult, poor-performing employee.
The lessons for managers dealing with difficult people who complain:
- Treat all complaints the same. Assuming someone’s claims are frivolous is an easy way to avoid correcting a real problem. That could get the company sued.
- Educate employees on what constitutes harassment and discrimination. One way to limit frivolous complaints is to educate people on what is and isn’t against the law.
- Don’t avoid dealing with difficult people. As this case shows, managers can take action when an employee’s constant complaints disrupt the workplace. Just make sure all the problems are documented.
Cite: Brinkman v. Andersen Corp.