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Embroker Team September 7, 2022 8 min read

How to Handle a Disgruntled Employee

A person passes by a disgruntled employee leaving the office on their way in.

It doesn’t matter how hard you work to create a wonderful work environment – once in a while, an employee will become unhappy with their job. Employees can become dissatisfied with their work for a variety of reasons: disagreements with coworkers, leadership, feeling overlooked, underpaid, and overworked to name a few. 

From a business culture standpoint, it’s important to bring disgruntled employees back on board quickly and efficiently. Both for the good of the employee, as well as the health of their department and, ultimately, your business as a whole.

Don’t think for one second that one “bad apple” won’t spoil the barrel. Without a doubt, disgruntled employees can have disastrous effects on your company’s bottom line and morale.

Research suggests that happy employees are 12% more productive on average, with unhappy employees being 10% less productive. That’s a big difference, and it shows how serious of an issue employee dissatisfaction can be from a business perspective.

On an interpersonal level, individuals that are deeply unsatisfied and unhappy with their work will tend to influence everyone around them. Their conversations and work performance will doubtlessly affect even the most productive workers. 

If their complaints remain unaddressed, even your best employees will think that you don’t care about them.   

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Managing Your Emotions When Facing a Disgruntled Employee

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On a personal level, it can be a blow to your confidence and ego that someone is unhappy with your leadership. After all, you try so hard to keep a happy house. It’s crucial to understand that these situations can happen to anyone.

An unhappy employee isn’t an automatic reason to feel negative about your workplace, your managerial style, or the employees themselves. You should take the opportunity to assess your leadership objectively but never take it personally. 

On the other hand, when faced with malcontents, many leaders may have an instinctual reaction of: “It’s their fault.” This may not be the case, as, outside of work, we are largely unaware of the lives that our employees lead.

Simply getting rid of every upset or discontented employee, aside from a PR disaster, it’d be a lonely virtual office. Everyone has bad days.

It’s better to stop for a second and consider how to reel them back in so that you can achieve your vision together. More often than not, the situation can be saved. 

Recognizing When an Employee Is Unhappy

When you imagine a disgruntled employee, you probably see something, or someone, very specific. 

While many unhappy employees will be vocal about their grievances, you also need to account for those that will simmer. Let’s discuss how you can tell that employees are becoming unhappy, so you can proactively address their complaints. Some of the following signs may indicate that your staff are unhappy or on edge:

  • Lack of motivation, noticeable drop in performance
  • Late to log on, take extra-long breaks
  • Constant negativity – they shoot down all suggestions and solutions
  • Unhappiness with their tasks, consistent requests for other work
  • Difficulty collaborating with coworkers

Employees can become unmotivated for a variety of reasons. Work-wise, they may feel overlooked, overwhelmed, or lack the passion for a project. This usually manifests itself as the employee performing below expectations. It won’t be easy to get them to contribute to the extent of their ability, and they may be hesitant to take on new assignments at all.  

The best way to show an employee is potentially disgruntled is to review their performance. Having robust procedures for monitoring employee output can help you avoid unpleasant conversations or potential incidents by nipping poor performance in the bud. 

Additionally, keep in mind that employees may have personal issues that are draining their focus. If this is the case, it’s essential to understand why they lost their mojo and attempt to help them get it back. Sometimes the cause will be beyond your control, but approaching an employee with legitimate concern can’t hurt. Be compassionate, and give them time to deal with any personal issues. 

How to Manage a Disgruntled Employee

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Now that we’ve talked about recognizing dissatisfied staff without them speaking out, it’s time to do something about it. Let’s discuss what you can do to handle the issues and return them to the fold:

Act With Empathy

When dealing with unhappy staff, the need to act with empathy and understanding can’t be overstated. Whatever you do when handling an angry employee, try to understand their position. Set up a one-on-one meeting, and encourage them to open up about what’s bothering them. If they have an immediate supervisor, don’t step over them and be sure to keep them in the loop. You don’t want to create an atmosphere of secrecy and go behind people’s backs. 

Also, keep in mind that a disgruntled employee might not be immediately receptive to sharing what’s on their mind. Let them know that they can speak openly, that you’re there for them, and you’ll be understanding, but don’t pressure them into doing so right away. 

Leading with empathy throughout this process will greatly increase your chances of winning back disgruntled employees to your side. 

Always Remain Professional

It doesn’t matter what the disgruntled employee does, says, or how they make you feel. It’s essential that you always remain professional and in control of the situation. Avoid getting into arguments or stooping to their level. These things are rarely personal, and their anger is usually NOT about you but about the situation in the company. Handling them in a professional manner will strengthen your position and increase the chances of a positive outcome. 

Listen to Their Grievances, Offer Constructive Solutions 

Sometimes unhappy employees just want to be heard. Listen carefully to their issues and try to offer them tangible solutions. Because you’ll often have a bird’s eye view of the situation, you’ll be able to suggest something that they have missed. 

Never Give Up on Employees

No matter what happens and how bad the situation gets, you should always try to get the employee back on your side. Unhappiness often builds due to miscommunication and misunderstandings, and talking about it could be enough to help everyone put what has happened behind them. 

Also, employees may feel like they’ve dug themselves too deep by publicly coming out and complaining. You must assure them that it’s not too late to resolve the issue and move forward together. 

Call in the Legal Department 

Getting legal involved when handling a disgruntled employee is crucial if their behavior is due to a severe issue in your company. If they are victims of mobbing, bullying, or harassment of any kind, you could have a big lawsuit on your hands. 

Protect Your Business with Insurance

As mentioned, if your employees bring forward claims of harassment, discrimination, causing emotional distress, or mismanagement, you could have a lengthy legal battle on your hands. Employment-related lawsuits are on the rise, and they can get EXPENSIVE – even if you’re in the right. 

Transferring the risk of these lawsuits to your insurer is the best way to protect your business from a potentially devastating financial loss. Two policies would respond to potential harassment and discrimination claims; EPLI (employment practices liability insurance) and D&O (directors and officers insurance).

EPLI will protect your company from most employment-related misconduct claims such as discrimination, wrongful termination, or failure to promote. The policy will cover both your defense costs, as well as any settlements and fines you may have to pay. 

However, if the employee believes that management did not address their employment concerns sufficiently, they may sue you or your management team. Having the right D&O policy in place will cover defense costs and damages (awards and settlements) in such cases and protect your personal assets. To avoid gaps in coverage, we suggest bundling the two policies in one seamless package of management liability insurance.

Act Fast

Employee dissatisfaction needs to be nipped in the bud, one way or another. When you first see signs of a problem you need to immediately handle it. Avoiding addressing these problems will only let them fester, and spin out of control. Also, after the problem is handled, share what has happened with your team. Don’t breach anyone’s privacy, and don’t share sensitive information – but addressing an obvious problem will stop rumors and office talk from building up, and causing additional problems. 

For Their Ears Only 

Never confront an unhappy employee in front of others. Schedule a meeting in a private setting, such as a conference room or your office. If they aren’t your direct report, include their supervisor in the process and allow the employee to speak without their presence. 

Trying to handle dissatisfaction in front of others is a recipe for disaster. Employees may feel embarrassed, or unable to freely express themselves, leaving them even more disgruntled.

Document Everything 

A part of being professional is documenting everything that happens when handling a dissatisfied employee. In today’s litigious world, even a seemingly simple case can end up in court, and end up costing your big money.

Documenting everything, from any official discussing you’ve had with the disgruntled employee to warnings, disciplinary actions and ultimately termination is crucial to protect you, and your company. Also, having these processes on record will help you if you have to go through a similar situation again, and help you build out a strong process for handling dissatisfaction. 

Never Throw Money at Them 

In most cases handling a disgruntled employee can, and needs to be done without offering them a massive salary hike. Buying their happiness is more likely to only keep them content for a while, before old wounds resurface. If you notice that an employee is rightfully complaining about being underpaid, go ahead and give them a raise. But let’s face it – all of us wish we were making more money, and unfortunately that desire isn’t always based in reality. 

The Takeaway 

We spend over one-third of our lives working. A happy and productive environment is crucial for anyone’s health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, every company has experienced a disgruntled employee (or a few). 

It’s difficult to keep everyone happy all the time. And worse yet, when employees become unhappy, their attitudes can become generators of bad will, humming with discontent, dragging down other, staff members. However, there are ways to reduce their impact on your company. Hopefully, this article will give you insight you may not have had.

If we had to highlight one key takeaway from this piece, it would be to try being open and objective. A good employee opening up and speaking about their grievances could be the biggest favor anyone has ever done for you in business. It will let you know how your leadership style and decisions are perceived “on the other side.” Such insight is crucial to improve and adjust to get the most out of your staff.

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