Business Casual: The Complaint Department


Once upon a time, complaining about your job was one of the perks of employment. These days, complaints are likely to be voiced in a very low tone, after a quick check to make sure no recently unemployed acquaintance is within earshot, and preceded by the fervent disclaimer: “I’m grateful to have a job, but …”

Job-related complaining is pretty much out of favor now, which is not a terrible thing but does deprive workers of a generally healthy way of letting off a little workplace steam.

Journalists are first-class complainers, so I might have a slight edge in kvetching colleagues, but over many years and several jobs I have heard co-workers complain regularly about the copier (undependable), the fax (too noisy), the phone system (too complicated), the carpet (smells like chemicals), the paint color (dingy), the holiday schedule (why is Christ-mas on Wednesday?), the mail delivery (too late in the day), the location of the restrooms (inconvenient), the parking situation (dicey), the artwork in the lobby (whose idea was that?) and snacks in the vending machine (always stale).

There were typically equal numbers of those who thought the office was too hot and those who found it too cold.

I have long suspected that the rise of Starbucks and other coffeehouses owes a great deal to office coffee, a topic guaranteed to provoke grumbling. If the company provided it, it was too strong or too weak; if employees paid for it, they lived in fear that someone who had not contributed to the coffee fund might sneak a cup. Coffee cleanup was always good for some complaints. I recall several places where there was frequently a scramble for the next-to-last cup of coffee; no one wanted to take the last cup because that meant you were supposed to make a new pot of coffee.

Some complainers strain tolerance. One woman considered it an imposition to have to sign office birthday cards – and said so. Another didn’t like the flavors of the bagels the company occasionally provided. (Too many onion, not enough plain.)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I have been known to voice a few workplace complaints myself. Some were embarrassingly petty (the expense forms at one publication had inferior carbon paper so the third copy was never legible) and some justified (one office briefly banned coffee mugs in favor of company-provided cups and saucers). Nobody paid any attention to my expense-form gripe, just as nobody paid any attention to the mug ban.

I have objected, at more than one place, to the number of meetings scheduled; between planning conferences and evaluation sessions, there often wasn’t much time to actually work.

I did a fair amount of grumbling in one office about the person who unofficially policed the coffee area and left neatly lettered signs, to the effect: “Your mother doesn’t work here, so please clean up after yourself.”

I complained once about not being invited to participate in a guys’ football pool, then promptly cleaned up the next week when I was allowed to join. (It would make a great story if I had won every week thereafter, but it was a one-time experience.) 

Of course some workplaces spawn grimmer complaints when employees are unfairly passed over for promotion, targeted for some imaginary rule infraction, belittled or otherwise treated badly by a supervisor. Sometimes, despite laws and policies and regulations, people are actively discriminated against or forced to work in unsafe conditions.

Those concerns are in a different category. The ones I’m remembering, with some fondness, are the trivial, the laughable, the somebody-got-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-futon gripes that often spark camaraderie among employees and unite them in the cause of better soap dispensers or more covered parking.

The sense of community that is such a crucial part of the work experience depends on a lot of factors to keep it alive – including a few petty gripes.

I suspect that a lot of people who are out of work would say they miss the companionship as well as the paycheck.

The concept of work-life balance may seem like a luxury when someone is unemployed and there is no balance to be had. But it is important. A few good-natured complaints are critical to that balance.

Categories: Business Casual