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Encouraging Complaints To Avoid Bigger Problems

By Jan H. Katz Phd., Cornell School of Hotel Administration

June 22, 2016

A manager once told me that subordinates often made appointments with him to complain at length and in detail about co-workers.

That didn’t surprise him; what did was that after the person finished speaking, he would ask, “What would you like me to do?” and almost everyone answered, “Nothing, I just wanted you to know.” Was it a waste of his time to listen? Research says not. It seems that disgruntled workers simply want to voice their dissatisfaction and believe they are being heard. It makes them believe that the workplace is fair and that their boss cares about them. So, the first take-away is that managers should learn to listen respectfully to employees’ complaints. It makes them feel better and it keeps the workplace from becoming a locale of backbiting and complaint.

In hospitality, though, there’s another barrier to the venting process: not all cultures feel equally comfortable voicing complaints to managers. Many low wage employees are migrants from collectivist societies with strict hierarchies (e.g. Latin America, most of Asia). Collectivists usually shrink from complaint because it breaks the collective harmony and those from hierarchical countries are reticent about approaching bosses in general. Research has shown that while people from those societies might be less likely to voice dissatisfaction to a manager, they actually value it more. Since many of the legal cases brought by hospitality workers arise from interpersonal tensions and perceived managerial disrespect, creating mechanisms for them to voice complaints to a person in authority can be valuable.

To do this, it’s necessary to identify a “listener” whom employees see as patient and trustworthy and of sufficient authority to be seen as part of top management. The designated person has to explain this new feedback option to employees, ensuring them that all comments will be kept confidential. It is likely to take some time before employees begin to use the channel, but by joining employees during break times and asking for feedback, the trust needed develops. The managing director of one of the palace hotels in Paris told me that it took two months until the comments started, but once they began, it was as if floodgates had opened. On the other hand, it’s better to listen to complaints in a company office than to have to deal with those in a lawyer’s office when a lawsuit is filed.

Contact Jan H. Katz Phd. if you have any questions or for more information: jan.katz@cornell.edu


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