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11 Tips For Handling a Disgruntled Employee With Empathy

May 22, 2019

Everyone has bad days at work – but how do you spot someone who keeps having them?

Disgruntled employees are a tricky thing to deal with because they can be hard to spot. Unlike someone who communicates openly about the problems their facing, a disgruntled employee is more likely to use passive-aggressive communication or not say anything at all.

But disgruntled employees are dealing with more than just a case of the Mondays. They are actively disengaged from your company culture and more importantly, their work. If left unchecked, a disgruntled employee can erode your team collaboration and office morale.

How to handle a disgruntled employee

A disgruntled employee is anyone in your employment who is unhappy or dissatisfied with their current situation. Workplace unhappiness is a result of something not going the way they expect. There is no time-frame for how long an employee may feel disgruntled and nobody is immune to becoming a disgruntled employee: because of that, it’s important to know what signs to look for.

Understanding the signs of a disgruntled employee will help you identify these situations before they become a larger problem. But what should you do if you think you have a disgruntled employee on your hands? Should you fire them and be rid of the problem? (Spoiler alert: NO.)

The truth is there isn’t a single correct way to handle a disgruntled employee because every situation is different. And while you can’t slap a one-size-fits-all solution on any situation, you can use these 11 tips as a jumping off point:

1. Don’t let the situation fester too long

The first mistake you can make when you discover you’re dealing with a disgruntled employee is to ignore the problem. Addressing the situation can be uncomfortable, but ignoring the problem will not make it go away. The longer you allow a disgruntled employee to stew without a solution will only make the situation worse.

 

Once you catch wind of the problem, take a proactive approach to meet with the employee in question and find a solution.

2. Approach with kindness and empathy

Identifying a disgruntled employee is just the first step. Your next move should be setting a meeting with the employee to discuss the issue. A disgruntled employee might not be immediately receptive to sharing what is on their mind. Don’t mistake this as the employee being difficult for the sake of it. Lisa Sansom, an Organizational Development Consultant at Queen’s University reminds HR professionals to lead with empathy.

“Be aware that the disgruntled employee is likely not trying to make life difficult for you - they probably want to do well and there are some obstacles in their way. If they want to do well, and you want them to do well, then you have something in common and that commonality is a great place to start from.”

Your first meeting should set the tone for the rest of the process. You’re there to listen to the problem and offer the employee a space where they feel comfortable sharing what is bothering them.

Tip: Read more about how to use emotional intelligence in the workplace

3. Remain impartial and professional

Your job as an HR professional is to act as a mediator for any situation regarding employees: the same is true for a disgruntled employee. It can be easy to approach the situation with a negative perception of this employee because they’ve been causing a problem. While this may be your first instinct, you need to fight it.

Keep things professional regardless of how a disgruntled employee reacts in your meeting. They may refuse to speak about what’s going on, get defensive, or even react with aggression. You should remain neutral and calm no matter how the meeting unfolds. This will prevent adding fuel to the fire and will protect you from any claims of bias should the employee lash out later.

Tip: Read more about conflict management strategies from industry experts.

4. Listen to the problem and offer a solution

Very few disgruntled employees are acting out simply for the sake of acting out. There’s a chance that a disgruntled employee’s poor performance or absenteeism is the result of a larger, unknown problem. When you listen to understand, a disgruntled employee is more likely to be communicative about their problem.

It’s not enough to listen to their problem: disgruntled employees want a solution. They may feel like they are stuck in an endless cycle and if you can offer them a way out, you should. John Rampton, Founder and CEO of Calendar reminds leaders that showing humility as a leader can help bring a disgruntled employee back into the fold.

“If you have an employee who is frustrated with their job or your company, listen to them and offer a solution. There is nothing wrong with jumping in and helping someone with their problem, no matter where you rank in a business. This shows humility and lets the individual know you care.”

Tip: Learn about the art of listening and how you can become a better listener.

5. Document everything

Documenting a situation with a disgruntled employee is important for a couple of reasons. First, it creates a paper trail of when you became aware of a situation and what steps you took to fix things. This protects you and your company from claims of discrimination or negligence should a situation escalate.

Another reason you should be documenting everything? It helps keep the facts straight. As we’ve mentioned before, a disgruntled employee is likely frustrated due to an unknown factor. It’s important to have detailed notes from the employee and any other people that become involved as things unfold.

6. Keep the issue private

Confidentiality is an important skill required of HR professionals. You may deal with managers or other employees who want to know what is going on with a disgruntled employee and your job is to keep the situation private.

If a situation with a disgruntled employee turns into something more serious, you don’t want to have shared any of the details before an investigation can be launched. Any information regarding a disgruntled employee should be shared on a need to know basis. This protects the integrity of your search into the situation, as well as the privacy of the employee in question.

7. Don’t treat the employee like a lost cause

There’s a chance that a disgruntled employee is upset because of something that is out of your control. Maybe they were passed up for another promotion or they were taken off a project. Even if the situation causing this employee to act out isn’t serious enough to warrant their reaction, you need to lead with empathy.

A disgruntled employee may feel that they’ve dug themselves into a hole: offer the employee a way out of their situation. Don’t punish a disgruntled employee right away or fire them for their behavior. Let them know that it’s okay to have a bad day at work and that as long as they are working to turn the situation around, everything will be fine.

Tip: Looking for a long-term plan to help a disgruntled or underperforming employee? Try creating a performance improvement plan for them.

8. Understand what larger problems may be causing the problem

Dealing with a disgruntled employee can often leave HR professionals feeling a bit disgruntled themselves. It’s a stressful situation but it’s important to remember that a disgruntled employee is an opportunity. It can expose problems within your organization that you may not be aware are happening.

An employee who is upset about missing a promotion could be an indicator that there’s no career growth at your company. An employee who is chronically late because they need to drop their kids off at daycare could be a sign that your work/life balance could use some work. Take a moment to ponder whether this single incident is the result of a larger problem at your company.

 Sometimes, understanding the smaller problem can help uncover a larger problem that also needs addressing. Keep an open eye for signs that something bigger is at play.

9. Accept that you can’t help everyone

People don’t enjoy being miserable. If given the chance to find a solution for a problem, most people will accept it. There are, however, a few rare cases where a disgruntled employee is happy to refuse help.

In a situation like this it’s important to remember that not everyone wants to be helped. If you’re dealing with an employee that seems vengeful, you should take the appropriate action to deal with them.

10. Know when to get legal involved

There are a couple reasons you might need to get legal involved when handling a disgruntled employee. The first might be that the cause of their behavior is due to something much more serious. If the cause of this dip in performance is bullying or harassment, you should get legal involved to help handle the situation.

Another reason you might need to get legal involved is if you believe the employee poses a threat to yourself or someone else at the company. If a disgruntled employee becomes hostile during your conversations or makes threats, you should alert the proper personnel. When it comes to workplace safety, it's always better to err on the side of caution.

Looking for an easy way to handle HR legalities? Check out user-reviews for HR compliance software on G2.

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11. Don’t assume the problem is taken care of

The biggest mistake you can make is assuming the problem is taken care of after one meeting. Even if the employee tells you everything is fine, follow up with them. Schedule a meeting for a month after your first conversation and review everything you spoke about last time. Discuss what has changed and how they are feeling with the progress that has been made.

Failing to handle the situation correctly and then failing to follow up can lead to a multitude of problems. Rumors being spread, negative online comments about your company, and a tainted company culture. You can prevent a bigger problem from arising by staying on top of the situation.

Lead by example and with empathy

Remember, a disgruntled employee is just an employee who is dealing with temporary unhappiness at work. The right strategy can eliminate the problem for the employee and make your workplace more inclusive and inviting to work in.

Read more about leadership communication, more tips on dealing with difficult employees and check out our human resources hub for anything and everything HR.

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