Q: One of my co-workers is always complaining about our boss. I have a good relationship with both of them, but I don’t want to seem unsympathetic to my co-worker. What should I do? - Darin, Arlington, Va.
A: Everybody needs to let off steam once in a while. But be careful about getting sucked into a gripe session about your boss. What you say could come back to bite you.
You are probably not the only one to whom your colleague is complaining. So if you join in to say something negative (even if simply in the spirit of sympathy) about your boss, your co-worker may pass on the message to others that you are unhappy, too, says Dana Brownlee, president of Professionalism Matters.
“Make sure whatever you say you would also be comfortable with if someone repeated it to your boss," says Brownlee.
How best to handle the situation depends on what your co-worker is complaining about, says Brownlee. If you agree with the complaint – maybe your boss is a micromanager—and you want to help, talk about how you deal with the issue. You might say something like, "I know John can be controlling. But I made sure I was very proactive about giving him updates on the project, and he eased up."
If there’s a serious issue that should be addressed, encourage your colleague to raise the problem with the boss directly—and suggest a tactful way to do it. "It's not going to solve your colleague's problem just talking to you about it," says Brownlee.
On the other hand, if your colleague is a chronic complainer who is more interested in moaning about things than fixing problems, it's time to short circuit that aspect of your relationship.
Constant complaining wears you down and distracts you from your work. Plus, turning a sympathetic ear will only encourage your colleague to come back to with a subsequent rant. “Complaining is like a fire, it needs oxygen,” says Brownlee. "And complainers seek out people who will feed that fire."
When you see a bitch session forming, steer the conversation in a different direction. Say something like “I’m tired of talking about work. Let’s talk about something else."
If your colleague launches in anyway, listen, nod but don't comment, and then change the subject. Or, play the work card, and just say you don't have time to chat.
Do this enough times and your complaining colleague will go elsewhere to vent, says Brownlee.
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