Managing the unhappy employee

One of the most difficult tasks facing any employer is dealing with the disgruntled employee. Human nature being what it is, there are many reasons for an employee to be disgruntled or unhappy. These could include on-the-job factors, which the employer can influence, and away-from-the-job factors which the employer may suspect, but from a practical perspective, should probably leave alone and not try to influence. Ever given a best friend advice he didn’t want to hear? The result is generally not constructive.

However, there are several important reasons to intervene. First, as your mother probably told you, “One bad apple spoils the barrel.” The power of the unhappy employee to infect the attitude of others in the workplace is very strong. The younger and shorter-tenured are the most susceptible. The greater the number of unhappy employees, the greater your lost productivity. It’s well documented that happy, content, satisfied employees are, at a minimum, two to three times as productive and possibly more productive up to a factor of 10

One of the most common weakness, ‘blind spots’ or failures of bosses/supervisors/owners is to ignore negative situations and not address them (Donald Trump not withstanding). Part of this is that we prefer to focus on the positives. We look on the bright side and are optimistic. We procrastinate. We hold tightly to the almost delusional hope that given enough time, things work themselves out. Usually, they don’t. They get worse.

What can you do?

Foundationally, and this is critical, you need to understand what is wrong. Often what is wrong is not readily apparent. So, you need to ask and in one way or another find out. Often supervisors/employers make a mistake by acting before they fully understand the issue and make things worse. People are complex mechanisms. If they were easy to figure out, you would already have taken action. Find out what’s wrong, always remembering that what you are being told could be anything but the truth. People lie, people rationalize, people are sensitive and easily embarrassed. We don’t like to air our laundry.

Address the issues

You call the employee in for a ‘heart to heart’ and are direct and to the point: “I can tell you are just not happy and it affects your work. You’re complaining frequently. You’re missing work. Your supervisor tells me things aren’t going well. What’s going on? Tell me about it…”

Then your job is to listen. This is very hard because we don’t want to listen, we want to do something, anything to fix things. We are uncomfortable with silence and will fill up empty “air time.” Fight the tendency to respond before you understand. Sit on your hands, press your lips tightly together and listen.

Out tumbles the problem, but it doesn’t quite make sense to you, so you probe by asking the employee to tell you more. You can also tell them that you are not sure you understand. You can also restate the employee’s problem in your own words to push for understanding and clarity. Even the employee may not understand the real problem, and if he does, he may have a hard time saying what it is. By talking things out you will both be better able to clarify the situation.

A salvageable situation

Now, while not always the case, let’s assume the situation is salvageable. This is a basically sound employee, but now he’s having problems and acting out. How do you address this?

Find out what motivates your employee for growth in his career. What is his aspirational hook? What does he value in the future? Because if you find out what his future goals and aspirations are, you can use that as a lever to build alignment and agreement, and frame things so that he knows what he needs to do to get there.

For example, if it’s money he may be struggling financially and his wife is putting pressure on him to get a raise. He’s been doing the same job for four years, with no raise, not even a cost-of-living increase. (Let’s face it — your business hasn’t grown so it’s hard to justify taking on more expense.)

You need to determine if you can afford to pay him more, and develop a concrete plan including expectations, goals and a timeline. For example, if you are this productive, don’t have unexcused absences, your level of customer complaints drop to X; your attitude is constructive rather than destructive, you get along with others. If you do these things, in four months let’s sit down again and let’s work something out.

To find out your employee’s aspirational hook, you need to find out what your employee wants in the future, which you can an engage or ‘hook’ him on. Find out where does he want to be in his job/career in two years, in five years? If you understand that fundamental, that foundation, then you both can partner, get on the same page, and work things out.

Interpersonal skills

If it’s money or career growth, you can do certain things to help your employee advance their career and stay with the company. But let’s face it, some people are just rough around the edges, immature, and don’t know how to get along with others. Does your employee have a big ego? Maybe he’s arrogant and thinks he’s better than everyone else? You need to hone in on the actual problem. Be specific. Maybe he is always shooting off his mouth and complaining. This style infects and annoys your other employees and your customers. Is he overly direct and straight-forward, tactless?

While this can be complicated to address and work on, let me share several thoughts and ideas:

Depending on what the issue or issues are, you can:

  • Pair him with an employee who has better social skills. Someone older, that he respects, who can mentor him and teach him how to deal with people both in direct conversation and by example. However, it’s important for him to know exactly what he’s working on. And it’s important for the mentor/coach to understand his mission. If you pair him with Tom and don’t explain what you want your employee to learn and improve you’ll end up double-staffing your jobs with no result.
  • Send him to a class at a local community college or training institute that has a class/segment on improving social skills. Perhaps it’s called “Improving your Management Skills.” Again, he has to know what he’s working on, so periodically check in with him to see what he’s learning. Ask him to keep a notebook or a diary about his interpersonal interactions and how he has handled them. Review it and talk with him again.
  • Coach him yourself. If he’s a good employee and worth salvaging then you’re making an investment that will pay you both back both financially and increase your satisfaction at being a good boss. Pair with him on jobs. Observe him — and then give him feedback. On the ride to the next job, talk with him about what you’ve observed. Over time give him increasing responsibility for customer interactions as you stay more in the background. He’ll feel good about his improving people skills, and may even get along better with his spouse and children (we don’t change our personality when we stop work and go home, we may change our clothes, but not ourselves.)

Dealing with an unhappy employee is never easy and it’s human nature to want to put it off. But every day we put it off we pay a price. Better to ‘lean into it’ and get it fixed.

Randy Cheloha is president, founder of Cheloha Consulting Group, a leadership development and succession planning practice. He holds an MS in industrial/organizational psychology from the Pennsylvania State University and a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of North Dakota, and works with executives and managers to address and improve issues impeding organizational growth and success.

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