Writing Effective Complaint Letters: Part 3

8 September 2011

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In part 2 of this series we talked about writing a complaint letter to a company. Today we’ll consider how to write a complaint to a colleague.


Organising the complaint

You can organise a written complaint to a colleague similarly to how you organise one to a company (see part 2):

·      Subject line

·      Opening (background plus the problem in general)

·      The inconvenience the problem is causing

·      How you feel about the problem

·      Further details, as necessary

·      What you expect them to do to solve the problem

·      A timeline, if relevant


The primary difference is in tone because of the close relationship you have with colleagues.


All-important tone

Complaining to a colleague about something they’ve done (or not done) can be tricky. You certainly want to maintain a friendly relationship, because in most cases you’ll be working with that person for the long term.


A very harsh-sounding complaint could cause more problems than you already have with that person. But if you’re not firm enough, they might not get serious about changing their behaviour.


So the tone of your complaint is all-important.


Tone also depends on your relationship to the colleague. If you supervise them, your language can be quite firm. But if you’re both in positions of equal rank, your language should be more conciliatory.


It’s appropriate to use rather informal language with colleagues – basically what you’d say if you were speaking to them directly.



Because you’re putting a complaint in written form, keep in mind that those words can come back to ‘bite you’.  It’s safer to have written evidence to support your complaint, something that will also make your case stronger. Check all sources before beginning to write.


If you are writing a second or third ‘warning’ complaint, you may need to have your personnel department check the letter before you send it.


Avoid confrontation

Whatever your rank in relation to the colleague and whatever the nature of the complaint, try to avoid a confrontation.


If you confront a colleague with accusations, for example, they will put up a wall of defense and not hear your concerns. This is a natural emotion – the ‘fight or flight’ response that we all have.


The words you choose can help with this.


Avoid these exaggeration words: always, never

Compare these two groups of sentences:

Group 1: You’re always late to work. /  You never get to work on time.

Group 2: Records indicate that you frequently arrive late to work.  /  In the past month, you’ve arrived late to work 12 times.


The Group 2 sentences state facts objectively rather than accusing the colleague with exaggerations like the sentences in Group 1.


Talk about the result of the colleague’s action

Your colleague might not be aware of how their action affects the company or the team. So mention those effects in your letter. Also talk about how you and other colleagues feel about them.


For example,

When you arrive late to work, your colleagues from the earlier shift are forced to work longer to cover for you. This can make them a bit resentful toward you.


When staff arrive late to work, service levels decline and we can lose customers as a result.


Notice the difference between ‘you’ and ‘staff’ in these two examples. Using ‘you’ is a bit more confrontational, but it’s appropriate coming from a supervisor.


Negative results for you? Or on others?

Sometimes, a colleague’s action makes your life and work more difficult. For example, if they are regularly late getting reports to you, that could make you miss your own deadlines.


In cases like this, it seldom works to talk about the negative results for you personally. If you say something like ‘your tardiness makes me miss deadlines’, you’ll sound a like a cry-baby, and your colleague might simply not care.


However, they might care about the results on the next person. For example, if you miss a deadline, the company might miss out on a sale. Or they might lose an important client. Or the company CEO might become irritated with your department.


So when possible, move the ‘blame’ to the next person down the line, and you might get better results from your colleague.

Consistently late reports are costing us sales. Last month alone, we missed deadlines on two proposals and lost both of those clients.


Politely ask for change

After you’ve stated your complaint and supported it with reasons for change, get down to business and ask your colleague to cooperate. Make this a very specific request, and always keep in mind that a polite request (sugar) will get better results than a command (vinegar).


Again, you’ll need to balance politeness and firmness, depending on how serious the complaint is and on your relationship with the colleague. Too polite and you might not get what you ask for; too firm and you might create friction (and also not get what you ask for).


Here are some examples of wording that ranges from most polite to most firm:

If you can get me your reports by the date I request, then we’ll have a better chance of meeting deadlines and increasing sales.

[This is an example of the ‘if-contract’ – ie, ‘if you do X, then I/we can do Y’.]

Could you please send future reports to me by the date I request?

In future, please send me reports by the date I request.

I expect your reports by the date I request in future.


Avoid threats

As a peer, you have little leverage to make threats against a colleague, and you probably wouldn’t want to threaten them anyway.


Supervisors responding to a serious complaint do have more power (and responsibility) to threaten a colleague. With first written complaints, you would likely state that the letter was serving as a ‘first notice’. Second or third complaints on the same issue can of course threaten more severe action by the employer.


Next series – responding to complaints

In a couple of weeks, we’ll begin a new series from the other side – responding to complaints.


Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions for writing effective complaints.

Copyright 2014 DeGolyer Associates Ltd |  Contact Deborah at:  writewithtaste@me.com