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‘My Co-Worker Constantly Complains!’

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Dear Boss,

A friend and co-worker of mine (we met at our current job and became friends outside of work), I’ll call her Donna, is deeply unhappy. Her morale is low and rightfully so — her manager is, to be blunt, incompetent, and she’s had to put up with multiple negative experiences over the past couple of years. She’s been looking for another job but without much success. We work in a relatively niche industry so she’s had trouble finding much, though I’ve tried to help her. I spoke to an old colleague on her behalf and gave a recommendation, which resulted in her résumé moving forward in the hiring process at said colleague’s company, but she didn’t end up getting an offer. I’ve also offered to connect her with other contacts of mine but she doesn’t seem to want to talk to any of them (just wants me to find things out for her/ask questions on her behalf). 

The biggest problem at this point is that this is affecting Donna’s work and her interactions at work. Any time I talk to her, she just wants to complain and is clearly miserable. A few times she’s even complained to me about work that I’ve assigned her (we’re at the same level but I do some project management for a team we’re both on). She’s also checked out — she’s been dropping the ball on some deadlines and disregarding certain workflow processes.

I’ve suggested that she speak to a career coach or a recruiter, since she seems to be at a dead-end in her job search and she is clearly unhappy in her current position. Whenever I suggest this, she says, “Yeah, maybe I should,” but she hasn’t.

At this point, is there anything I can do to help her, other than lend a sympathetic ear? And, since I kind of have the feeling your answer will be that I’ve done all I can do, how can I better cope with her negativity? I don’t want to say anything to upset her or to de-legitimize her feelings, but the only topic of conversation she seems capable of lately is complaining about work, and I can only take so much of it. I should add that I’ve had some low points in my own happiness at this job, but I’ve been trying hard to stay positive and stick it out so that I can gain more experience in my current role before moving on.

Donna may not be at a point where she really wants help — or at least not where she’ll put it to use. It sounds like she’s stuck on the venting portion of the “I hate my job and need to leave” train and hasn’t yet hopped off to say: “I’m going to take concrete actions to make that happen.”

It’s possible that her job search has been more robust than what you described in your letter, but someone who’s highly motivated to get out generally would be taking you up on your offers to connect her with contacts and doing the other things you’ve suggested, like talking to a recruiter. For whatever reason, she’s not. And that’s her prerogative! But you should take your cues from that, because it doesn’t make sense for you to pour more energy into her search than she’s putting into it herself. You’ve offered help and you’ve offered advice, and you don’t need to keep searching for ways to do more.

Meanwhile, though, accommodating her constant complaining probably isn’t helping, because it’s likely keeping her mired in negative feelings about work. Frequent complaining has a way of magnifying problems and making them even more unbearable.
That’s not to say that people should ignore real problems at work — they shouldn’t — but chronic complaining, especially to someone who has no power to change whatever the problems are, isn’t particularly constructive and after a while can become genuinely toxic.

And it’s not just toxic to her. It’s affecting you too, and it sounds like it’s making your work environment a significantly less pleasant one. It’s exhausting to work around someone who complains so frequently, and that alone is a reason to ask her to rein in the chronic complaining, totally aside from the fact that it likely would be good for her as well.

So truly, it sounds like the most valuable thing you can offer Donna right now is a reality check about how out of control her complaining has become, and how it’s impacting her work. She might need a nudge to deal with whatever’s keeping her from job-hunting more aggressively.

If the two of you were just colleagues and not real friends, I’d suggest that you just pull back from your involvement in her job search and ask her to rein in the negativity around you, explaining that it’s impacting your own quality of life at work. But because you’re friends, it’s worth trying a one-time heart-to-heart with her about the whole situation.

You could say something like this: “I’m really sorry that you’re having such a hard time with your job here and with your job search. I know that’s a difficult, frustrating place to be. As your friend, I feel like I need to tell you that it’s at the point where your unhappiness is affecting your work here, and I’m worried that if you don’t rein it in, it will start to impact your reputation and even make it harder to get another job. I totally understand the reasons why you’re checked out, but it’s showing up in your work in ways I don’t think you’d want, like missing deadlines and not following processes like X and Y. I don’t know if you realized that you’ve even complained to me about work that I’ve assigned to you!”

If she responds by once again telling you all the reasons why she’s unhappy, keep in mind here that your goal isn’t to convince her to see things your way. You’re just flagging this in case she genuinely didn’t realize her unhappiness is starting to affect her work, and what she does with that is up to her. If she chooses not to take the feedback you’re offering, so be it.

But from there, you can say this: “I do understand why you’re unhappy here. At this point, though, it’s been months, and I’m finding it really tough to keep talking through all the things that we’d change about this place. Staying so focused on the problems here is making work much harder for me, and for my own mental health, I need to pull back from venting about that stuff.” You could add, “But if there’s anything specific I can do to help in your job search, I’m totally up for that.”

From there, if she keeps trying to complain to you, you can try the No. 1 anti-complainer tactic and ask, “What are you going to do about it?” That may or may not nudge her into action, but it’ll definitely make you less satisfying to complain to, which is a good outcome too. Or you can just say, “I’m sorry — like I said before, I’m trying to stay more positive here for my own peace of mind” and then follow that up with a quick subject change.

If you worry that saying this will sound callous, like you don’t care about her problems, keep in mind that you’re speaking out of concern for her and emphasizing that you’re willing to help in her search — but also standing up for your own mental health, which you’re entitled to do. And really, there’s only so long that it’s reasonable to expect even good friends to listen sympathetically to a long-running complaint. At some point, the complainer needs to either take real action to change their situation or figure out a way to live reasonably happily in it. It’s not okay to keep complaining to friends about it indefinitely. (And it’s even less okay to do that to co-workers, since they’re a captive audience who can’t escape.)

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‘My Co-Worker Constantly Complains!’