What Should Employees Do If Managers Ignore Complaints?

See How to Address the 4 Types of Complaints

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Reader Question:

A reader asked the following question: “What should employees do if managers ignore their complaints?”

Human Resources’ Response:

Well, there isn't a single answer for that. It depends on what you mean by ignore and what you mean by complaint. First, let's talk about ignoring.

If you go to your boss and say, “The process we use to track inventory is outdated,” and your boss mumbles something and doesn't do anything to fix inventory, that's ignoring you.

But, if you make the same complaint, and she responds, “I know, but in order to update the system we need $200,000 and finance won't authorize that,” she's not ignoring you. She's not changing anything, but she's not ignoring you.

Often people assume that if the boss doesn't do what you've asked, you're being ignored. Bosses aren't obligated to make every change suggested by an employee and, in fact, many times they can't for reasons you don't understand.

Now, let's talk about what a complaint is. There are four categories of complaints, and with each one you should take a different tactic when you're ignored.

Types of Complaints

Legal complaints: If you complain to your boss that Jane is sexually harassing you, or that Steve is violating OSHA regulations, and your boss doesn't launch an investigation, you need to escalate the issue. You can either report these things to your boss's boss or to the HR department.

Many companies have an anonymous tip line where you can report legal violations, and you can do that as well. If going these routes doesn't fix the problem, you can always report it to the relevant government agency.

But, keep in mind, just because you complain about something, doesn't mean it's necessarily a violation of law.

For instance, if your sexual harassment complaint about Jane is, “Jane asked me out on a date,” and that's it, there's nothing for your boss to do, other than say, “Okay, thanks.”

It's only a violation if Jane won't take no for an answer or treats you differently because you said no. Likewise, what you may see as a violation of a government regulation may not actually be one - we often don't know what goes on behind the scenes.

Process complaints: Let's go back to the example of the inventory process that is outdated. You think it could be done better. If you just say, “The inventory process stinks!” expect your manager to ignore you. 

That's not a proper complaint, that's just whining. If you come to your manager and say, “The inventory process stinks, so I think we should do A, B, and C,” that's a reasonable complaint. If your manager doesn't implement your suggestions it doesn't mean that he's a. ignoring you or that your suggestion is even workable.

Often, you only know part of the system. You see your part, and that's it. So, the company may not implement your ideas because, frankly, your ideas won't work - for all of the parties and processes affected. Or they cost too much. Or, they just don't want to.

That may seem ridiculous, but it's not. The company can’t implement everything employees suggest. You've said your piece, and you've offered a solution, and then you can leave it. This isn't the type of suggestion you escalate. Your manager won't appreciate it and you won't look good.

Workload complaints. Don't assume that your manager knows precisely what you do all day. Your manager may not know that you're completely overburdened while your coworker is watching videos on YouTube all day.

If you're overworked, take it to your manager like this, “Right now I have A, B, C, and D, on my plate. I don't see any reasonable way to get them all done by Friday. Which ones have top priority?” If your manager says, “Do all of it,” you can ask for help.

If your manager doesn't offer any help or ignores you, then you need to take a few steps.

  • One, evaluate whether you're being truly realistic about the amount of work you have. Are you spending too much time goofing off as well?
  • Two, prioritize yourself. You need to figure out what the most important task is and do that first.
  • Three, decide whether you want to live this life.

No one forces you to work in a particular job. If the workload doesn't fit with how you want to live your life, start hunting for a new job. When you find one, quit and leave.

However, keep in mind that if you want to progress in your career,you probably won't do so working 40 hours a week. People who have climbed to the top of the career ladder usually put in a lot more hours than the people at the bottom. It's fine if you're happy where you are, but don't complain about not getting promoted when you're walking out the door no later than 5:02 every evening.

Other complaints. These encompass everything from, “My coworker smells” to “I hate my job.” These are things you need to stop complaining about. If your coworker smells, you can either bring it up to your coworker directly, (“I don't really know how to say this, but I've noticed you might want to shower more,”) or let it go.

Your manager has noticed that this person smells badly as well, and hasn't done anything, so bringing it up to your manager won't really change anything. For “I hate my job,” your boss doesn't want to hear it. It's not constructive and it's just whining. Find a new job.

The basic rule of complaining is that if you can offer a solution you can bring up the complaint. Otherwise, it's just whining. Complaining about rules, your reasonable workload or your coworker’s bad habits is just whining. Whining isn't really tolerated and your boss should ignore you.

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