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How to deal with a disgruntled employee: Eight important elements

How to deal with a disgruntled employee: It’s not fun, but it’s manageable

As much as we’d like to believe life is a perfect Instagram post/Kumbaya-singing drum circle, it’s unfortunately not. Look at 2020. There was a global pandemic, numerous iterations of social unrest, massive layoffs in some industries, and entire pivots in working style for some people. Sadly, it’s going to lead to some disgruntled employees. 

Even in a “normal” year, we know disgruntled employees do exist. Per Gallup, there are 1.2 billion (that’s a lot of people!) full-time employees in the world, and only 15% of them are consistently engaged with their work. The good news is: 180 million people are engaged. The bad news? That’s 1.02 billion people who are not engaged. So, yes, disgruntled employees are going to happen. It’s going to be a thing that you need to deal with.

The problem, as noted by Harvard Business Review, is that many managers shy away from dealing with disgruntled employees, in large part because they fear the resulting conversation will be awkward. 

While it inherently will be awkward to deal with a disgruntled employee, it still needs to happen -- as Wharton has noted, managers are “getting the extra salary to take care of the work environment and to make sure that things are running smoothly.” Indeed. So while awkward, how to deal with a disgruntled employee needs to be part of the managerial playbook.

But how, exactly?

Don’t wait

This would be the single-biggest thing to remember. When situations fester for a long time at work, they invariably become worse. Get out ahead of the problem. It’s quite possible that the disgruntled employee is making things awkward for other members of the team. 

If you remember the case of Kitty Genovese -- New York City woman stabbed in her courtyard as hundreds of people in windows above could have called the cops -- there’s a construct called “diffusion of responsibility” or “the bystander effect,” and it happens within organizations too. 

In short: everyone knows there’s a problem, but no one does anything about it, and the problem escalates. So, above all else, if you sense an employee is disgruntled, or other team members are reporting that someone is disgruntled, act quickly to have a conversation with that employee. 

Emphasize privacy

Years ago, one of our current colleagues -- at a previous job -- had a manager who would conduct sensitive conversations, and performance reviews, with her door open to the cubicle area. While the employees there got some juicy gossip out of those conversations, it’s inherently not professional in the least to do this. 

If you’re talking to someone who is disengaged and disgruntled about work, do it in a closed office environment. This is harder because of COVID, and inherently a Zoom/Skype discussion about being disgruntled might be somewhat awkward, but you still need to do it. 

If you have the in-person option, do it in a closed area because if you do it in a conference room, even if the room itself is private and the doors are closed, sometimes other employees will be able to see into the room, which creates its own form of gossip and speculation. You want to manage this conversation in the most 1-to-1 way possible, respecting the disgruntled employee’s privacy to the max.

Document

Ideally you’re not entering the conversation thinking “I want to get this employee out the door,” but it’s true that some employees end up not being the best fit, and sometimes Performance Improvement Plans and eventual termination do come up. 


If a disgruntled employee will eventually need to become a former employee, you need to document everything you’ve done in terms of conversations, action items, emails or messages exchanged, reports from teammates, etc. Documentation will be the key on the legal/compliance side if there are any questions about an eventual termination.

Do the front-end research before deciding how to deal with a disgruntled employee

You need to understand the climate that you are entering here. Dig into these questions:

  • Why might this employee be disgruntled? 
  • How is it displaying itself? 
  • What are teammates saying? 
  • What are other managers saying? 
  • Is the work product/performance declining? 

Have conversations with teammates, managers, and anyone who regularly interacts with the employee to see exactly what’s going on and how it’s manifesting itself. There are very specific cases of being disgruntled, and then there are more general cases -- because, remember, human beings are creatures of emotion, but work tries to make everything logical and process-driven. This causes issues. You want to know exactly what you’re dealing with. 

Be kind, and don’t come off as angry or on the offensive

The first conversation needs to be a time for listening, and for you to flex your interpersonal communication skills. While you’re coming in with information you’ve gathered, don’t lay it all out at first. Rather, let the disgruntled employee talk about his/her concerns, frustrations, and challenges. 

After each segment they speak to, repeat back some of what you heard. Convey that you’re listening and get it. Just like you got information from others before this conversation, now you’re getting information directly from them. 

While we don’t always associate “kindness” with “corporations,” there is an increasing movement towards kindness as a business strategy, as seen here:

Over the last few years, this leap of faith unleashed all sorts of everyday acts of kindness. There was one dealer who’d closed a sale and noticed from the documents that it was the customer’s birthday. So he ordered a cake, and when the customer came in to pick up the car, had a celebration. Then there was the customer who got a flat tire on the way to her son’s graduation. She pulled into a Mercedes dealership in a panic and explained the problem. Unfortunately, there were no replacement tires in stock for her model. The service manager ran to the showroom, jacked up a new car, removed one of its tires, and sent the mother on her way. “We have so many stories like this,” Cannon says. “They’re about people going out of their way because they care enough to do something special.”

This initial conversation needs to be rooted in kindness. Don’t come out angry and guns blazing, demanding to know why this employee is disgruntled. Listen and repeat, and try to figure out where the employee is coming from. Don’t be afraid to make small concessions.

Bonus: if you know your employees better and understand what drives them, through a tool like F4S, you can frame this conversation in a way that instantly resonates with them. “I know you want XYZ out of work, and I suspect you’re upset because it’s not there.”

You may be able to remedy the stress-provoking aspect of work that would make this employee happier and more engaged by assigning them to different projects that better align with their work style, or by prioritizing their personal development through a targeted coaching program.

Correct rumors or falsehoods immediately

If the employee starts dropping “misinformation” -- a big 2020 concept, no? -- about teammates or the organization, correct those immediately. If the conversation becomes awash in rumors and gossip, no one will emerge from it with anything positive happening. 

Avoid the “lost cause” problem

These approaches on how to deal with a disgruntled employee can sometimes feel, to the employee, like they’re a lost cause: they’re headed for Performance Improvement Town or Termination Town. Try your best not to give them that sense. 

You want to convey that you want them there, you want them to feel good there, and you are willing to work with them to get them to a less-disgruntled, or even happy, place with the team and the organization.

Co-create the next steps

Once the facts and emotions and context is all out there, and the conversation has reached an information pinnacle, the next step needs to be determined. This is the action item. 

What’s going to happen next with the disgruntled employee? Some possibilities include:

  • Manager talks to team.
  • Employee talks to other teammates.
  • Manager and employee agree to recurring meeting.
  • Manager and employee agree to new project to boost engagement.
  • Employee moves towards a Performance Improvement Plan.
  • Employee starts a targeted coaching program to address their difficulties.

There are any number of ways it can go, but the next step should be co-created. While the manager can propose what the next step is, it should be framed as “I am thinking the next step will be…. Do you agree with that?” 


Give them a chance to respond and have a back-and-forth regarding what should happen next. You don’t want to let a potentially toxic employee determine or own the outcome, no -- but you also don’t want them to think everything is happening in a top-down vacuum, because that will make them more disgruntled in all likelihood, and unless you plan on firing them that day, all you’re doing is releasing a disgruntled employee back into the attempted productivity of the team. Co-create the action item.

The bottom lines

Above all, you want to:

  • Research the situation
  • Listen and respond to the employee
  • Document everything
  • Figure out some next steps/action items
  • Proceed together until it’s potentially untenable anymore

Work is hard, and stressful, and lots of emotions and psychology are at play, and people want to do well and miss targets, and people burn out and companies fade, and oftentimes leadership isn’t perfect. It’s a hard road to walk, and employees do get disgruntled. 

But if you manage from a place of research, empathy, listening, and documentation, you can improve the situation and move it to the most logical conclusion.

With F4S you can know exactly what motivates your team members, and how best to communicate with them to defuse a tense situation. Schedule a free demo to learn more.

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