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Does Complaining Hurt Your Career?

The national past time, at least during work hours, is to complain about work.  We all do it to some degree.  But should we?  Does complaining hurt your career?

Actionable Complaints Versus Whining

Let’s start by understanding there are 2 types of complaints.  Essentially those that are actionable and those that are just to hear yourself complain.  How to tell the difference?

Actionable Complaints

Well frankly the actionable ones, when done right, sound less like complaints and more like requests.  For example, if you are underpaid the complaint might be phrased to your boss like a request for more pay.  If you are really expecting a change you should come prepared with actual examples.  An approach might be, “People in my position in this area make $20K more then I do currently.  What can I do to position myself to more align my pay with the current market?” Very actionable, even though it’s still a complaint.

Complain to Someone Who Can Change Things

There is also an element where to be actionable the complaint has to be directed towards someone that can do something about it.  Complaining about your pay, even in an actionable way, to your peers, will get you nowhere.  Doing so to your boss might get you what you desire.

Bring Solution, Just Add Water

The final element of an actionable complaint is bringing your own well thought out solution.  Over the years I’ve had this one beat into me by managers.  Managers don’t want to be brought problems, at least not on their own.  They want solutions to those problems.    They might not execute your solution in favor of a different one, but they want one nonetheless.  Multiple options are even appreciated, though again pick one to recommend over the others.

For example, “I have more work then I can do with my given time, how can we free up some of my time” is technically a request and might be directed to your boss.  But it says nothing of how you suggest your time get freed up.    Instead, you could say “I have more work then I can do in the day, can we work to automate X and Y to clear up my workload?”.  Your manager would be much more likely to help you out.

Un-Actionable Complaints

Actionable complaints are very important.    Just as important as being able to say no in keeping your career moving the right direction.  When used effectively actionable complaints get you more pay, resolve work issues, and at very least tell you where you stand when making a decision.    But what about unactionable complaints?

Every one of us is guilty of these.  The most common type is complaining to our coworkers.    It could be a complaint about workload, managers, amenities, changes, or even other peers.  In any case, the clearly defined situation is you are complaining to someone who cannot change your complaint about something that you do not expect to change.  Essentially you are complaining to hear yourself complain.  You also might be doing so to seek validation from others.  So is that a bad thing?

Are Un-Actionable Complaints Bad?

Well, maybe…  Excessive complaining, especially about the same topic or topics, can brand you as a negative influence.  Too much and those people who work with you won’t want to be around you.  Personal anecdote time I guess.

The Story of John “Bad Attitude” Co-Worker

Way back during the Dotcom Era I worked as a young intern at a computer hardware company.  I chose to work at this employer for 9 months straight as part of my Universities CO-OP program.  So the company had this bright idea to have me share a cube with a worker about 30 years my Senior.   We’ll call him John (not his real name, honestly I’ve long since forgotten his real name).

John might as well have been called “Bad Attitude”.  All he did was complain about the work environment.  The long hours, the antiquated systems, the dilapidated technology, even his own atrophying skillset.  You name it, he complained about it.    As a young 20 something intern it was really disturbing and turned me off of the company, but it also drove me off of really getting to know John. (Hence forgetting his name.)

Anyway, during that 9 month period, the Dotcom crash began.  My employer was thrust quickly into round after round of layoffs.  Guess who went as a first-round draft pick?  John.  Even me as the intern outlasted him.     You know what?  I’m not even sure anyone missed him.  No one wanted to be around John the complainer as it was.  Truly a sad story.  Don’t be John.

Occasional Whinging

But what about repeating the same complaint but less often?  Well, frankly this causes other problems.  As an individual, you might get branded as an obsessive person unwilling to do something about your specific concern.  Also, the repetitive complaint can just act to reinforce your anger or frustration with the problem.  Ie. it’s not really therapy as you might perceive it, but instead could be making you feel worse about the complaint by reinforcing it in your mind.  If you find yourself repetitively making the same non-actionable complaint, it’s time to consider changing that complaint to an actionable one. 

Complaining, the Ties that Bind

The above all being said, there are degrees of non-actionable complaining.  A moderate to low amount of non-actionable complaining about a variety of topics won’t brand you as John the complainer or obsessive.  In fact, some studies have shown that a small amount of complaining, when combined with humor, can help bind a team.    I see this at my current workplace actually.

There are still a handful of all the time complainers.  Most people ignore or avoid them.  We’re all very busy people and we don’t have time to sit around listening to constant complaining.  However it’ is common to hang around the watercolor, or in my case the teleconference call, and kibitz for a short period while you wait for a meeting to start or end.   Sometimes, but not every time, that kibitzing involves a non-actionable complaint.  When stated in a humorous manner we all have a chuckle and go on with our work.   

Humor as Therapy

 Does this type of non-actionable complaint solve anything?  Frankly no.  But if everyone gets a laugh about it, it’s slightly therapeutic to the person complaining, and a shared understanding of where we all sit occurs, then it can have some value to the team.    As a team, a shared joking complaint might make everyone feel like you are on the same side.   It’s a fine line to walk, deciding how much non-actionable complaining is just participating versus dragging the team down.  The amount and way to go about it is something you learn as you get more comfortable with your team and it’s intra-dynamics.  

Are you cognizant of the amount of complaining you do at work?   Is it actionable or non-actionable?


  1. Joe
    Joe February 12, 2019

    A little complaining is expected. Everyone does it. However, too much is bad for morale. At my old job, there were people like John too. They stayed too long and became bitter. The job changed, the company changed, and people changed. They liked the good old days better. Bring a solution or some idea to the table is a great idea. Everyone likes to have some options, not just problems.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance February 13, 2019

      Every company and organization has people like John. I believe humans are hardwired to not deal well with change. Complaining seems to be a common coping mechanism.

  2. Abigail @ipickuppennies
    Abigail @ipickuppennies February 12, 2019

    I like the idea of bringing complaints with a solution already in mind. Few people like to be given a problem to solve, but if you bring them the problem with potential ways out of it… Then it seems more manageable and, as you said, less like a complaint.

    I only have one complaint, which is my coworker who just doesn’t try very hard. Unfortunately, it’s a small company and she’s a friend of the family of the boss. So complaining or even hinting too strongly about her performance would do nothing for me. Except maybe cast me in a bad light. So I don’t bring him anything unless it’s really egregious.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance February 13, 2019

      Sometimes you can’t win from saying anything so the best path forward is to keep your mouth shut.

  3. Savvy History
    Savvy History February 18, 2019

    As someone who hates whining and probably bottles up too much, nice balanced thoughts here. I like the idea of splitting complaints into two categories. I haven’t heard of this before! I also like the idea of humor helping if something can’t be solved by an actionable complaint. I have a co-worker who makes me laugh very hard using such tactics.

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