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All About You: Coping with complainers

All About You by Richard Hawk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

Scientists haven’t found it yet, but I’m sure one day they will – a “complainer gene.” People with the complainer gene are easy to identify, especially at meetings. Their modus operandi is to continually gripe about one thing after another until everyone else in the room is thoroughly irritated.

It’s important to realize that there’s a difference between someone complaining and someone reporting a valid hazard. If a committee member brings up a specific safety issue at every meeting, even if it’s minor, good for them. You should want that. If, on the other hand, he or she makes broad statements such as, “No one cares about safety around here,” or “Nothing gets done to make things safer,” that’s griping.

Safety and health professionals are a prime target for grumblers, and the complaints can bring us down – especially during safety presentations or the monthly safety committee meeting. Having a chronic complainer on your safety committee can be very frustrating. It can also ruin the committee’s willingness to meet. Sadly, it only takes one person to turn a brief discussion about correcting a simple problem, such as a loose handrail, into a tiresome, drawn-out conflict.

Here are some tactics that may help you better handle constant complainers:

Ask for a solution

My favorite tactic to cut down on needless grievances is to ask the person for a solution to the objection, and then suggest he or she get involved in fixing the problem. If the person is sincere about improving your safety culture, he or she will want to do something about it. If the person simply likes to complain, you won’t get much of a response, and he or she may complain less to you from then on. You may be pleasantly surprised, though – at times, I’ve been surprised at how deeply a complainer got involved in fixing a concern.

Ask for specifics

Often, and especially during meetings, complaints are merely a forum for people to blow off steam. Ask the complainer for details about why and how the protest is legitimate. If someone complains that nobody cares about safety, ask the person why he or she believes that. If the answer is something like, “Last week there were no hazard cones around the parking lot area when it was being repaired,” you now have a specific, valid issue you can address and follow up on.

Have a comeback ready

When I was working as a safety supervisor on a construction site, an electrician would come up to me regularly and say, “Safety is a state of mind governed by the dollar sign.” Then he’d proceed to grumble about management’s attitude or about how the company didn’t care about employees.

He wanted to get me upset and start an argument. I nipped it in the bud once I created a reply to his saying with my own that rhymed with “sign”: “But if you follow our safety rules you’ll always go home fine.” Not only did he not get a rise out of me, but my response also took the wind out of his grousing sails. If you prepare yourself for protests by having a response ready, you’ll have a better chance of reducing a complainer’s power.

It’s important to keep in mind that some people enjoy complaining and will gripe about anything. Consider the customer who reportedly wrote to General Mills to say that Cheerios aren’t “aerodynamic” and veered to the right or left when he threw them. He demanded that General Mills correct the problem or give him a refund!

If you become frustrated by someone who constantly complains, and you’ve made sincere but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to get the complainer to point out a specific safety concern, you’ll know you’ve tried and can turn your attention to workers and committee members who are trying to create positive change.

Richard Hawk helps companies around the world create more vibrant safety cultures by showing them how to make safety fun. As a professional speaker, author and musician, he also inspires employees to focus better and enlightens safety leaders about ways to increase their influence. To learn more about Richard, visit

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