Editor’s note: Donald B. Stephens is a senior customer service engineer with the Xerox Corporation. He has worked in field service for more than 30 years. In the debate about whether it’s healthy to allow employees to vent, Stephens reminds managers that service techs are different than office-bound workers. When techs vent, customers are likely the recipients.
I recently researched the topic of “employee venting” for a presentation I gave at Field Service Fall, and the amount of differing opinions online surprised me. For every article extolling venting at work as potentially beneficial, I found another article arguing it doesn’t help — or even makes things worse.
Had I been someone with very little job experience, I might have given up on the subject and gone a different route for my presentation. Fortunately, my 31 years of experience as field service technician enabled me to glean shreds of truth from each writer’s article. Here are five takeaways from that research that have been proved true during my career:
Truth 1: There’s a Difference Between Venting and Complaining
Shellie DuBois writes in a Fortune that “venting is different from complaining” because a complaint is simply an employee voicing concerns about an aspect of his or her job, while venting only involves negativity. I agree that venting is mostly a negative reaction, and it often does more harm than good, but legitimate complaints are regularly sprinkled with colorful language that can only be interpreted as a vent. I’ve witnessed hundreds of complaints that were seasoned with such language. The challenge for any manager is to separate the two, and then address the complaint while ignoring the vent.
Truth 2: Employee-to-Employee Venting Is (Mostly) a Negative
Anybody who has worked with coworkers has experienced an employee with an axe to grind. All the venter wants to do is attack the person, process or policy that has pushed their button. In rare cases, the person on the receiving end will chastise the venter, and the axe grinder either has a change of mind or finds somewhere else to bury the axe. I’ve seen an employee calm a coworker down, so I am hesitant to agree with Stephanie Vozza who writes in Fast Company that “[employee-to-employee] venting actually makes anger worse.” But I do understand the argument. Most coworkers will not only lend a sympathetic ear; they will join in on the rant.
Truth 3: The ‘Good’ Type of Venting Is a Manager’s Responsibility
In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Leon Seltzer writes that “at times you may need to vent to another to get assistance in reinterpreting what you may either have taken too personally, or perceived erroneously.” Because a coworker rarely attempts to alter a perception or a personal slight, managers need to fill the void. A tuned-in manager will draw out the complaint before it has time to fester. The problem is that managers often do not have the time or opportunity to engage employees before they become upset enough to explode on someone else.
Truth 4: Service Reps Are a Special Case
Every article or blog I read referenced venting within the confines of a company, with spouses or on websites with people who work in the same industry. But no one addressed employee-to-customer venting because, I suspect, they didn’t use field service techs in their surveys. If a company enacts a controversial or unpopular policy, the typical office worker turns to the cubical next to them and vents. But remember that the next persona service rep is likely to see is a customer.
Truth 5: Preventative Meetings Can Be Effective
Not every bad attitude or grievance can be prevented, but many of them can. Managers often contribute to the need for venting by not providing sufficient opportunities to express concerns about changes, such as new technologies or policies, that affect employees’ jobs. Virtual meetings are now used for nearly every announcement or change to a service team. A manager might ask over the phone, “Are there any concerns?” and the team’s talker will speak for the next 20 minutes. But the guy with his arms folded and a reticent scowl on his face— the tech who needs to vent — might sit silently waiting for the online meeting to end.
A good old fashioned, face-to-face meeting is still the best way to let service reps vent — and the only way to read the body language of those who will end up venting to someone they shouldn’t.