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How to Identify, Respond to, and Prevent Disgruntled Employees

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Disgruntled employees may feel they have been treated unfairly, may resent their work situation, or may simply be plunged into a situation they don’t understand. Whether or not those allegations are true, a disgruntled employee affects those around them, who also become disgruntled and are just as likely to quit. Moreover, disgruntled employees may openly complain about the company, its products and services, and its culture, chasing away potential hires and customers.

It is easy to label someone as “difficult” and simply refuse to deal with them. However, you are then holding yourself and your team hostage to the employee’s bad attitude—and stoking the employee’s increasing rage at your indifference. Everyone feels and reacts to the resulting stress.

Never dismiss the concerns or the power of even one disgruntled employee and never assume that any employee is incapable of change. Instead, take the following steps to help identify, respond to, and prevent disgruntled employees.

How to Make Sure the Employee Is Disgruntled

Make sure your perception is correct. Disgruntled employees are often defined by poor performance, absenteeism, lack of participation and collaboration, negativity, and strained relations with others. They may generate complaints from other employees. However, we all have bad days. Before you start a conversation with the employee:

  1. Track the behavior you are seeing to make sure that it is regularly occurring.
  2. Document the behavior; when you do have a conversation, you want to talk about specific instances rather than using words like “never” or “always.”
  3. Make sure you are part of the solution, not part of the problem. Does the change in the employee’s behavior and attitude happen only with you? Do you know what the employee is working on, what their responsibilities are, and how they handle relationships with other people (team members, other leaders)? Are you open or resistant to feedback? Does the employee know your expectations and standards, and are those expectations reasonable?
  4. Assume the employee will bounce back from bad behaviors or attitudes that stem from a temporary issue (such as a looming deadline or a round of flu in the family).
  5. Do not let the situation continue for long before addressing it, especially if the employee has mentioned specific challenges or causes that need your attention. Act immediately if the employee threatens violence.

How to Deal with Disgruntled Employees

  1. Do not speculate. If you have been checking in regularly with your team, you will notice any sudden change in an employee and may have clues to the switch in behavior: the loss of an anticipated promotion, a delayed pay raise, or a lack of resources. You may hear gossip about the employee’s home life or health. You may be tempted to practice amateur psychology. All of these approaches lead to frustration for the employee who may be disgruntled for entirely different reasons—and lead you to waste time addressing the wrong problem.
  2. Meet together privately. You must meet with the disgruntled employee privately to discuss specifics. Beginning from an attitude of helpfulness and empathy, let the employee know what have you seen that suggests there may be a problem. Does the employee feel there is a problem? You should enter the conversation believing that the employee wants to resolve the situation as much as you do. Avoid an atmosphere of interrogation and avoid jumping in with solutions. Instead, engage in a dialogue in which your most important contribution is to listen and make sure you understand.
  3. Be honest. According to a survey of over 9,000 disgruntled employees, those employees wanted a chance to change but felt powerless when no one would honestly tell them where they were falling short. If there was a problem, they wanted to hear about it. They also wanted honesty when they were told that certain changes would be made or opportunities arise if they made changes in their behavior or attitude. Bottom line: never lie to a disgruntled employee and never promise more than you can deliver.
  4. Know the rules for dealing with hostility and anger. 
  5. Identify a mutual purpose. Ask the employee what they like about their field or job and about working in the company to bring a positive note into the conversation and begin to establish a common ground. Emphasize your willingness to work together to find a resolution for the identified cause of the employee’s unhappiness.
  6. Document the conversation. While respecting confidentiality, documentation has several important purposes. Documentation will:
    • Become a basis for confirming the next actions to ensure you and the disgruntled employee have the same understanding of the conversation and the results.
    • Refresh your memory later on.
    • Protect you in case the situation escalates (by showing that you took steps and what they were).
    • Justify further action if the situation doesn’t change or worsens.
    • Help you identify additional steps you might take or confirm that you would benefit from a consult with your boss, Human Resources, a professional counselor or coach, or the legal department.

TIP: You and the employee should leave the meeting with an action plan that you are both responsible for seeing through.

How to Prevent Employees from Becoming Disgruntled

Make sure you recognize employees when they reach a goal, exceed expectations, or receive praise from within or outside your team: recognition is more important than raises, promotions, career growth, and training in keeping employees happy and engaged.

Make changes in your organization and its culture that promote fairness, trust, and chances for growth. Among all the causes of stress and burnout leading to disgruntled employees, unfair treatment ranks among the highest and may involve discrimination, bullying, and other actions that put your company at risk legally as well as morally.

Communicate with each employee regularly face-to-face. If you check in with employees and team members regularly, you are able to quickly identify and resolve potential causes for dissatisfaction. You are also establishing mutual understanding, modeling professional communication, and building a well of trust that you can draw on when larger problems loom.

Support employees in their goals with more than talk and help them with their challenges. For example, they may need help with scheduling, prioritization, reading social situations, and other strategies. Provide mentorship, serve as a role model in problem solving and communication, and have resources available for employees who require help beyond your capabilities.

Giving all employees respect, dignity, recognition, and a chance to develop creates a culture where people want to do their best and stay.

TIP: By showing yourself willing to listen and take action, you have taken the most important step toward preventing disgruntled employees.

Key Takeaways

A disgruntled employee may be a symptom, sometimes indicating a failure to create a fair, trustworthy, supportive workplace and sometimes indicating a problem that stretches beyond the workplace. As a leader, your responsibility includes identifying and talking with a disgruntled employee to find solutions and develop an action plan.

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