back to blog

How to Complain to Your Boss

complain to your boss

If you’ve got nothing to complain to your boss about, you’re not paying attention. Conversely, if you’re a natural complainer, your manager may have tuned you out long ago. How do you strike the right balance? Change the way you think about complaining—and the way you do it.

Issues are bound to arise from time to time. Some of them may be easy fixes, like it being too cold in the breakroom. Others may involve more critical concerns affecting work performance or a legal issue. For each of these complaints, consider asking yourself the following questions:

Is it a problem?

Are you sure that there’s a problem outside your control that needs solving? Take a good look at the amount of complaining you do. What’s your tone when you do it (does your “whine” speak louder than your words)? And how often do your complaints include things that are just “so unfair.”

These red flags require some painful self-reflection, but they can be the reason your complaints aren’t being heard. Ask friends, family and trusted colleagues if their perception of how, when, and why you complain matches your own. The Muse offers these additional tips for self-reflection before taking action.

Do you have a solution?

An empty complaint is difficult for managers to stomach because it leaves it up to them to think through a solution. Instead, don’t “complain” at all. Always approach the situation as making a request instead. As with any reasonable request, you also need to present a possible solution or outcome you’d like to see.

“Your manager may not be able to make it happen, but they will never know what you’re hoping to see happen if you don’t tell them — plus it shows that you’re proactive about problem-solving,” Laura Weldy, leadership mentor and life coach at The Well Supported Woman, tells Glassdoor.  

Are you talking to the right people?

If you have a complaint about your boss or coworker, you may be tempted to go above (or around) them to avoid awkwardness, but that’s usually not the best solution. These tips by Money Magazine may help you determine your best channels. Small complaints (a coworker who brings stinky lunches, for instance) can often be handled one-on-one. Larger ones may need a more formal process.

For formal complaints, check to see if your organization has a code of conduct or another guide to lodging complaints in its employee handbook. Follow those guidelines as closely as possible and document, document, document (what was done, who you told, how it was handled, etc.). Only take the complaint to HR according to the guidelines. If you fear retaliation or your complaint borders on a protected issue like discrimination or harassment, the process you take is important. 

Are you being sucked in by group negativity?

Misery loves company. That’s why you’ll see entire teams get sucked into group negativity. You might assume that complaining together can build camaraderie, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Repeatedly venting about the same problems can increase those negative thoughts and emotions.

But there’s a way to turn things around within the group without being cast as the out-of-touch outsider. Studies have been done comparing “co-brooding” with a subtly more constructive act of “co-reflecting.” The latter turns complaints into a more solution-focused activity. Consider being the person to ask, “Why are we feeling this way?” and “What do we think can be done to fix the problem?” These questions can turn miserable venting into more positive brainstorming, which can help both coworkers and managers move forward.

Practice makes perfect

We love this advice from The University of Texas at Austin HR department on having a difficult conversation with your supervisor. In it, they dole out homework to help you prepare, initiate, discuss, and conclude a complaint. For instance, as part of your discussion, UT Austin HR recommends following a STATE acronym:

  • Share your facts
  • Tell your story
  • Talk tentatively
  • Encourage testing

If you can turn your complaint into a solution-oriented request in this manner, follow the right channels, and be the voice of reason, the changes you want to see have a better chance of happening.


Ready to move your career forward? Connect with The HT Group today!

And be sure to connect with us on LinkedInFacebook and Twitter for up-to-date news and tips and let us know what’s on your mind.