Ask Wendy

Venting vs Bitching: The Difference Matters

Q: What is the best way to approach employees who say unkind things about other employees or customers and are overheard doing so? They are usually blowing off a little steam after a frustrating conversation, they may not know they can be heard, and the things they are saying aren’t racist or sexist, just generally not nice.
A: Well, everyone needs to vent a little at work! We all get frustrated with minor annoyances in the workplace and blowing off a little steam is to be expected. However, venting can turn to bitching very quickly – and makes an unpleasant working environment when it happens constantly.
How to spot the difference?
  • Venting is a quick, event-driven emotional response, typically followed up with the vent-er finding a solution or way forward.
  • Bitching is the same topic repeatedly addressed and doesn’t include anything remotely looking like “and here’s what I am going to do about it” wrap-up. It starts as venting, but tends to never turn to trying to address what’s not working.

An important note: In either case, if the topic is another employee, it’s time to take a stand. A workplace filled with gossip and side-conversations is toxic. Reciprocity is a powerful reminder in these cases. A simple statement such as “I wouldn’t sit by while others talked about you this way, so I am going to do the same for the whole team” is a reminder that you won’t let the team pull itself apart from the inside. It is fair for someone to ask for help in working through something with a peer – that is coaching. It’s a fine line, but the nuance is if there’s a productive change in behavior at the end of a conversation rather than repeated complaining.

So, are you overhearing venting or bitching?

Ignore venting – as long as your customers can’t hear it. Venting can actually be helpful in identifying the pain points of your coworkers and employees. Shutting down all venting means you’re not listening to all aspects of the work experience. And, if you’re not listening, it’s harder to lead or manage a team.

Address bitching right away:

  1. Who can overhear it? Again, if it’s customers shut it down immediately with a quick “Now isn’t the time or place” comment. Sometimes humor can work, too: a “We can hear you!” is a gentle reminder that not everything needs known what someone is feeling in the moment.
  2. Is it the same endless complaint? Ask the complainer what they’ve done to try to fix whatever is annoying. A few rounds of “I’ve heard you get frustrated about this before – how are you making sure it doesn’t happen again?” goes a long way.

And if you need a laugh after these direct conversations with your team, there’s a great The Mindy Project episode that covers the idea that we all need to complain a little about work: Season 4, Episode 20: The Best of the Best.


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