# How to objectively counter “You are the first one to complain about that.”?

I've been facing this situation for some time where our office's management keep choosing the cheapest option whenever they have to pay for anything related to our work environment or company travels.

For example, We are a small subsidiary in Africa and several employees travel to our company headquarters in Europe on a yearly basis. The local management always books the longest flights, the same 1 star hotel although when someone visits us from the headquarters they book a local five star hotel.

The 1 star hotel is dirty, noisy and sometimes even suffer from missing light bulbs or water outage.

Another example is when I requested a new chair because the current one's design was so cheap and it caused me back pain since I was working for a long time sitting down. My request was denied based on the fact that nobody before me complained that the chair wasn't adequate.

The important thing is although many other employees share my same thoughts they rarely if never raise it officially. Some of them are afraid to be labelled as trouble makers. Others are just grateful for the idea of visiting Europe and are willing to sacrifice their convenience.

Whenever I raise these issues with the local management I get the prepared response "Nobody ever complained before you, you are the first one to complain about that". They are consciously trying to put peer pressure on anyone who talks by making him seem like the odd one out.

How do you counter that objectively when no one is willing to back you up?

• "You're the first to complain" - that's what they tell everyone :-) – gnasher729 Feb 10 '16 at 13:17
• @JoeStrazzere well if I'm going to make noise I might as well be reasonable about it. I don't want to sound like someone ranting to the management specially if I later on decide to involve higher ups from the headquarters. – Long Feb 10 '16 at 13:27
• Would they care if you left? How easy is it for you to get a new job? – Ian Feb 10 '16 at 15:35
• @JoelEtherton how about this: just work at home with whatever equipment and hours and so on that you like. You could create your own consulting company, choose your work and clients, do all your own HR (taxes, retirement, healthcare coverage etc) and be completely happy. Wait... – user37746 Feb 10 '16 at 19:10
• "Sweet! Did I win a prize? So, what are we going to do about it now?" – user15729 Feb 10 '16 at 20:38

Don't counter. Ignore it, it is irrelevant. "You are the first one to complain about that." "OK. How are we going to solve it?"

It is not important that you are the first one to complain. If you engage in the meta-discussion about the complaint (such as if you are the first one to make a complaint), the real discussion about the complaint itself will not start. Skip over that meta-discussion, and talk about the problem you have.

• Pakk is correct. The statement "You are the first one ..." is irrelevant. You could ask if being first makes your complain invalid. Of course being first doesn't invalidate a complaint. However, you may be confronting a fundamental issue where your company does not want to, or possible can not pay for more than the barest of essentials. Given the atmosphere of the company, you may want to consider how productive complaining about the situation will be. Some companies treat employees poorly and will not change. – Liczyrzepa Feb 10 '16 at 20:50
• "Sir, there's a hole in the ship!" "Yeah, well nobody else has complained about it." – schil227 Feb 12 '16 at 0:32
• To be entirely fair, if it is true that no one has complained about it yet, identifying what was different about them and the complainer may help yield a solution. That said, it definitely isn't a reason (even a supportive reason) to dismiss the complaint. It may be a reason to make it a low priority, but it isn't a reason to flat out dismiss it. – corsiKa Feb 12 '16 at 2:18
• This is actually a classic case of manipulation called "the social proof". The goal is to give (or in this case: remove) value to an argument by pretending than most (or all) people do it another way than you do (so you must be wrong). It's easy to counter: use the same trick and pretend that other people made the same complaint to you, it's fair game. – ereOn Feb 13 '16 at 14:02
• @ereOn: "pretend that other people made the same complaint to you" - this sounds risky: The social proof works both ways, and everyone who knows that will, when told "Others have said ...", immediately respond "Who? How many? What exactly have they said?" If you are just pretending to have received the same complaint, this can easily end up with you cornered instead of your complaint corroborated. And if you claim something like you don't want to breach their trust, you will still sound as if you are telling fairy tales to support your minority complaint. – O. R. Mapper Feb 14 '16 at 23:07

Someone has to be first. In case of the chair: it's your back, and it would be really odd to have others complain about your back pain.

There's the possibility that everyone is always dismissed as being the first, no matter how many others have complained before. For these cases, put things in writing: Bring up the concern as usual, then summarize the discussion in an email, in a neutral or friendly tone. You then send the email to the people who were part of the discussion. These are discussion notes, just like meeting notes, except usually shorter.

If at a later date you come across someone higher up the food chain who takes your concerns seriously, and asks you for more details, you can just forward them the past emails.

• Regarding the hotel, you can check in sites like TripAdvisor if there are reviews that confirm you opinion, then add the links to the email or volunteer to show upon request. Just be careful than negative reviews could be too aggressive for an office setting. – Trickylastname Feb 10 '16 at 14:02
• lol @ others complaining about your back pain.. I can just imaging one of your co-workers going to your boss and saying, "Hey boss, Peter looks like he has been in a lot of pain lately, I think it's his back. Maybe you should get him a better chair?" – Michael J. Feb 10 '16 at 20:00
• @Michael I laughed even more thinking about something in the lines of "Hey boss, that chair is hurting Peter's back, this is bothering me, please fix it". – Pierre Arlaud Feb 11 '16 at 10:50

"I am glad to hear that my suggestions are not redundant and thus sorely needed in order to maintain an effective work place and good working morale here."

Without changes in the long run, try looking for a different job where your work is better appreciated. This sounds more like a burner job, or management confusing it with one.

• "Look for another job" is a laster resort when things like this are discussed. One should try to fight for better working environment, there are ways how to do this (as shown in the top-voted answer), and they can lead somewhere. Quitting with a first sign of friction is going to make you quit all the time. – yo' Feb 15 '16 at 14:29

"Whether I'm the first person or the last person to complain about it, it's still wrong."

Years after this question was asked, I've since learned that what this employer was doing is a form of psychological manipulation called gaslighting. The purpose is to make a subject question their own confidence in themselves-- if nobody else has complained about it, you must be crazy for thinking there's something wrong!

The only way to objectively counter it is to hold them accountable for everything they say and do by psychotically sticking to your guns, fact-checking everything they have to say and refusing to accept anything told to you that you can't verify for yourself. Do not trust anything they say. If there was any merit to their reasoning, they would not need to play mind games to make their point.

Two tactics that tend to work well against the sorts of people that do this are outside exposure (their logic always falls apart under legal scrutiny; they will do anything to avoid having to explain themselves to police or a judge) and ironically, gaslighting itself.

I walked out of a company that pulled the same stunts.

• When they sent me on travel, they'd only buy long-layover standby tickets.
• If I made it to the hotel, I'd find the corporate card would be frozen. Sometimes I couldn't get a hold of management to call in and unlock it, so I'd have to pay out of pocket.
• The office was entirely furnished with used stuff they bought on Craigslist (I drove the truck!). My seat fell off its base on multiple occasions.
• The final straw was when, being salaried, they'd skim money from paychecks over arbitrary matters ("You were 15 minutes late on Tuesday..")

Accommodations for clients were always top notch though. And of course I was the "first person to complain about this."

In your case, they're not doing anything illegal, but you need to document their refusals to make any concessions and perhaps get documentation from your physician attesting to the workplace conditions causing you back pain. I doubt labor law in Africa is favorable towards employees so it might behoove you to consult a local attorney as well.

And I will tell you from experience that even if you win this battle, they'll find another way to stick it to you later. Rather than standing your ground you'd be best served finding work elsewhere, or get ready to put up with this sort of abuse for a long time.

• ... skim money from paychecks over arbitrary matters ("You were 15 minutes late on Tuesday..") => is that even legal? – DonkeyMaster Feb 10 '16 at 17:38
• @DonkeyMaster Depends on the jurisdiction in question. It's certainly not legal in the U.S. – reirab Feb 10 '16 at 17:40
• @DonkeyMaster No, it's not. But with small amounts of money, people can often get away with it. When someone comes with a believable threat of legal action they usually give in. If there's no threat of legal action they just keep the money. Companies like that treat their employees just like every telecom company treats their customers. – Peter Feb 10 '16 at 17:42
• It depends whether you're on an hourly rate or not. If it's an hourly rate then they pay you for the hours you work. Work fewer hours earn less money. – Tim B Feb 11 '16 at 12:04
• My first company had just used furniture. At the time some bank was refurbishing some local offices and a lot of excellent quality used furniture went to an auction. Cheaper and better than any new stuff :-) – gnasher729 Feb 12 '16 at 22:51

The implication made by "You're the first one to complain", is a logical fallacy. That's how you counter it objectively. The implication is that you're weird, or different, or making unusual requests, or making unreasonable requests, because naturally everyone else is for the most part, reasonable, right?

It's a version of Argumentum Ad Populum (appeal to crowd fallacy):

Management is trying to make the case that your argument is invalid because otherwise, others would be making the same case. That's like saying when you claim 2+2=4, you are wrong, because no-one else is coming to management saying 2+2=4. Clearly that's a fallacy. You can be right on the merits of your argument alone, regardless of what anyone else is doing.

Now, whether or not you should ACTUALLY counter management's argument objectively is the more important question. My advice is, it's rarely advisable to get into an argument, especially with management, unless this is something you are willing to risk your security of employment for. Better to be a gentle persuader, and show them why treating their employees better is better for THEM, not YOU. Everyone listens to WII FM (what's in it for me).

• Thanks Brad :) This is actually a very good point you mentioned there. – Long Feb 10 '16 at 21:55
• Also note that in a perfect company, you would always be the first one complaining about anything you notice. Because issues are fixed so quickly that it doesn't get to affect a second one. – Ángel Feb 11 '16 at 21:20

Lots of good answers, but I'll answer from a Third Worldish employers perspective. Because most of these answers will probably see the OP sacked or forced out.

Here's the thing, you complained and you got refused. You complained again and got refused again, do you see a pattern?

The country may have high unemployment and you can be replaced with a snap of the fingers. This or other factors make employers less interested in the happiness of their workers. Whereas OS people are pandered to because they're less easy to replace.

There is a mentality in some countries, mine is one, that the locals are lucky to have a job, they should be happy to have a roof over their heads when sent out and shouldn't complain. There is an expectation that they are used to rougher conditions and a reluctance to spend any more than necessary.

This is also reflected in how much the staff are paid, a local might make peanuts compared to an overseas staff member and this is reflected in how they're treated. The minimum wage here for instance is just over $1 USD an hour, the minimum in the USA is I think over$14 USD an hour so a USA staff member is a much bigger investment and will treated as such.

Making a big deal out of things others are too afraid to complain about might make you unemployed, so be careful.

In answer to the question "how to counter"

You don't you put your head down and do the work, or you look for a new job. Take that feedback from management as a warning, if they get tired of warning you, things can go bad for you. Many employers I know would have sacked you the second or third time.

• It's a decent cynic's answer, but you might also want to suggest that they try every trick in the book to get ahead (corruption + nepotism 4 life, etc) because companies like that do not reward "putting your head down and doing the work". The only upside to the approach you suggest is that it's low risk. It has virtually no reward. – deworde Feb 11 '16 at 9:15
• @deworde if you have 80% unemployment, low risk is the reward... just saying – Kilisi Feb 11 '16 at 9:17
• I don't disagree with your core point (it's good advice), but I think it's naive to believe that in the modern economy "not causing trouble" is enough to protect you from unemployment, and that in a company like the one described "doing the job" will get you promoted into safety. Good luck providing for your family when they arbitrarily close the subsidiary or sending your kids to school when they announce redundancies as a cost-saving measure. I'm sure you'll feel great about taking that beating then. – deworde Feb 11 '16 at 9:27
• I agree 100%, it is. I just think you're not being cynical enough If anything. They can say "if you're not quiet we'll sack you" (and whether they can back that up is something you should always be aware of), but they're not in a position to say "if you are quiet you'll be able to provide for your kids" – deworde Feb 11 '16 at 9:40
• The minimum wage in the U.S. is \$7.25 per hour. – david Feb 11 '16 at 21:48

Quite simply, you can't.

Or at least you can't - unless you're willing to make a stink and risk your job.

Labor Laws

I don't know exactly where in Africa you are, or what the labor laws in your country are like, but that's basically your best bet. Raise concerns over their business practices to some local government agency, or maybe even contact a lawyer.

They might find that buying you a chair to avoid further legal action against them is a net benefit. That, or they might fire you.

Coordinated Employee Action

Try talking your fellow employees into standing up to management over some of their miserable business practices. If enough of you take a stand they may very well cave.

However, they might also think that this will set a dangerous precedent, and simply fire a bunch of you in order to cow everyone else into submission.

Take It Up The Food-chain

You mentioned that you travel to Europe once a year. Do you have the contact information of some managers from your main corporate division?

You could potentially write to someone out there and explain the abysmal work conditions that you are enduring, and ask them to step in.

Conclusion

I fear that your chances of seeing this situation resolved are incredibly low. Your best bet is to look for a new job and hope your new bosses are more reasonable people.

• Exploring legal options should be the last thing you consider and I'd never recommend such a drastic option for something as minor as management being cheap. Would you seriously threaten legal action over an office chair or poor accommodation? – Lilienthal Feb 10 '16 at 13:43
• @Lilienthal - this situation sounds like a company that has a history of treating their employees poorly, and bullying them into compliance. Mentioning that they're not meeting their obligations to their employees is a good way to force their hand. I worked at a company that refused to buy better chairs (and theirs were horrible) until someone went to the doctor and came back with a note saying that the person in question required a more ergonomic solution. They were still struggling their feet until it was pointed out that not meeting those requirements is actually illegal in Ontario. – AndreiROM Feb 10 '16 at 14:29
• Ontario is not in Africa. I'm thinking worker protections are not the same in many African countries. – Amy Blankenship Feb 10 '16 at 16:49
• @AmyBlakenship - I am aware. That's why the OP needs to judge this step for him/herself – AndreiROM Feb 10 '16 at 19:10
• @AndreiROM I see your point, but it's one thing to go to HR and say "Hey, this is a reasonable accommodation and since FMLA applies to us it'd be good for morale and we avoid a potential legal issue." It's something else entirely to go directly to government agencies or a lawyer and start legal action. – Lilienthal Feb 10 '16 at 19:16

You're the first one to complain... of course someone has to be first.

You can try to get more co-operative with them. Instead of asking for a new chair that costs money, ask for a small amount of budget to source a chair yourself. That's more likely to gain a favourable response. Similarly for hotels, instead of them booking for you, ask if you can book your own - to a set budget - and then see if you can find better for yourself (I find nasty hotels are not as cheap to book as they appear and you can do better for the same amount, particularly if you book last-minute for bargains)

But ultimately it looks like your management just don't want to spend any money they don't have to (maybe they get to keep it as a bonus at the end of the year if its not spent on other things - like chairs or hotels)

A couple of years ago a supermarket here (Australia) was taken to court for selling mouldy bread. They were fined, but as the defence council argued that they had no prior convictions (for selling mouldy bread) and the magistrate let them off "without recording a conviction".

A few days later a letter appeared in the newspaper pointing out that next time they sold mouldy bread, they could still argue that there was no prior conviction.

So, effectively, they could sell mouldy bread every day, and argue that they had not previously been convicted of doing that.

More recently, I had a problem with an app on a smart phone. I rang and complained and was told that "no-one else had complained". I thought therefore that my problem must have been pretty rare.

Then I remembered the supermarket. I rang back, spoke to the same customer support person, and asked if they had logged my complaint about the app. I was told "no".

I could see here the same saga repeating itself. If everyone who complains has their complaint not recorded, then customer support can tell every new caller that they haven't had a complaint like that before.

Now, I can't speak for this particular (unidentified) company in the question, but the general principle is: this response means nothing unless all complaints are recorded.

For this particular question, you could ask "do you keep a written record of complaints?". (They probably don't). If not, you could respond, "if there is no record of complaints, how can you be sure no-one else has complained?"

Alright, that makes sense, how are more senior employees dealing with these issues? I'll ask them for their solutions.

There are three possibilities; either the seniors have another solution, they didn't think complaining was worthwhile, or you're not the first one at all, they just said that to make you go away. This response cuts through all of three while allowing you to assume a position of polite willingness to learn.

• In the first case, the seniors will give you a solution and you can either use it or explain why it doesn't fit the case (e.g. earplugs give you a headache, and/or you aren't sleeping with a local so you're not even in the hotel)

• In the second, it will expose that the problem exists for other people

• In the third, it will uncover the lie, at which point that's a different question, document it and refer it to senior management. HR is supposed to work for you, not against you.

But I do agree with Kilisi's answer that you are taking risk on for low benefit. One thing that might be worth trying is attacking it from the other end, mention it to the European bosses when you're over there. Change often moves at the speed of Lunch.

Get approval to take a survey to see if anyone else feels the same way. Your coworkers may still be afraid but at least you tried to show them management is open to suggestions.

If the management doesn't want you to get feedback from others, now you know they're just using this as an excuse and will continue to do nothing.

Unfortunately in your area, I don't know if you have any legal standing for a health issue with your back.

• No, taking a survey is playing right into their hands. It's only going to delay the request. And by the time, the survey is finished, I bet management will come up with a new unrelated objection. The best is to simply accept that you might indeed be the first one assertive enough to complain, but then to stand your ground and firmly repeat your request. – Stephan Branczyk Feb 12 '16 at 6:17
• @StephanBranczyk - A lone complainer is not going to become assertive enough to combat the company's argument. Why does a survey have to take any longer than continuous complaining? All the OP needs is a few more people on his side and the argument no longer holds up. – user8365 Feb 14 '16 at 13:32

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