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Exactly How to Handle a Disgruntled Employee

How to manage a disgruntled employeeHow to manage a disgruntled employee
min read
August 21, 2023

As a business owner, you want to keep your employees happy, satisfied, and engaged. But even if you funnel all your time and resources into building a supportive and engaging company culture, at some point, you’re going to find yourself face-to-face with a disgruntled employee.

Dealing with the occasional unhappy, disengaged, or disgruntled employee is part of running a successful business—but it’s how you deal with those employees that really matters.

So, what’s the best way to manage a disgruntled employee? How can you get to the bottom of their dissatisfaction to find a solution? And how can you move your team members from “disengaged and angry” back to “engaged and satisfied”—and support your organization’s overall health in the process?

Why managing unhappy employees is so important

First things first—before we jump into how to effectively manage a disgruntled employee, let’s quickly cover why dealing with unhappy employees is so important to begin with.

Disgruntled employees are unhappy for a reason; whether it was a disagreement with management, an issue with the work environment, or an incident with another employee, something happened that left a bad taste in their mouth. And that negative experience can lead to a host of issues, including a lack of motivation, poor performance, and absenteeism—all of which can have a negative impact on your organization.

But the potential issues don’t stop with the disgruntled worker. Their active disengagement, performance issues, and negative attitude can start to have an effect on the rest of your team, bringing down morale and motivation for other employees, causing further damage to your company.

That’s why, if you’re dealing with a disgruntled employee, it’s important to find out why the staff member is upset—and take the proper steps to deal with the issue and manage the worker.

But how, exactly, do you do that?

Keep an eye out for red flags

The first step to effectively managing a disgruntled employee is being able to identify a disgruntled employee.

When it comes to your employee’s behavior, there are a number of red flags that business owners should be on the lookout for, including:

Address the issue now—not later

Once you notice the warning signs, it’s important to take action—and to take action quickly.

The longer an employee is unhappy, the larger the potential impact—on the employee, the rest of your team, and your organization as a whole. For example, let’s say you have an employee that’s unhappy with their working environment. If you talk to the employee immediately, you can find out what, exactly, about the work environment is causing an issue—and then take any necessary steps to address that issue before it becomes a bigger problem.

On the other hand, if your employee is unhappy with their working environment for a few months, the potential fallout is a lot worse; your employee may have performance issues, struggle to get things done, and complain about the working environment to coworkers, which can bring down team morale—not to mention that there is a potential company culture issue within your organization that’s been allowed to grow and fester for months.

The point is, the longer an employee is disgruntled, the more challenges that employee can bring up for your business—so it’s important to confront an unhappy employee as soon as you become aware of the issue.

Talk to your employee and hear them out

When you realize you have a disgruntled employee on your hands, how you handle the situation is extremely important. And the best way to handle the situation? Having an open, honest conversation.

Pull your employee aside, let them know what you’ve observed, and ask them what’s going on. Take a calm, curious approach. So, for example, you might say something along the lines of “I’ve noticed you’ve been showing up late for your shifts the past few weeks, and you’ve missed a few critical deadlines. That doesn’t seem like you. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

Then (and this is the important part!), hear your employee out. Give them the opportunity to talk about what’s bothering them without interrupting them or interjecting your own opinions—even if you disagree. Your employee might give you insights into issues with your management, work environment, or company culture that need to be addressed—and even if you ultimately don’t agree with their grievances, giving them the space to talk through them will make them feel respected and heard.

It’s also important to document the key details of your conversation (and any future conversations) in writing, including the issues you brought up to your employee, the issues your employee brought up to you, and an action plan for dealing with said issues. Then, have your employee and human resources sign the document to keep.

Having clear documentation of the issue and how it was managed protects both you and your employee—and can help you avoid a lawsuit if the issue escalates you have to terminate your employee.

Make changes as necessary…

In many cases, your employee’s disgruntled attitude will be justified; there’s something within your organization that’s driving their performance issues or disengagement. And if that’s the case, you need to get to the bottom of what’s going on—and make changes accordingly.

So, for example, let’s say your employee tells you that they’re upset because their supervisor is treating them unfairly and it’s making it harder for them to feel invested in their work. If that’s the case, it’s important to address the issue with their supervisor and, if necessary, make changes to better support the employee (for example, getting their supervisor management training to help them be more effective or moving them to a different team/supervisor). 

If your employee is unhappy because of something that’s wrong within your organization, if you want to move that employee from “disgruntled” to “satisfied,” you need to take action to fix what’s wrong and give them the support they need to thrive.

...or take disciplinary action as necessary

If a disgruntled employee is causing serious issues in your business—and you’ve done everything you can to support them—there may come a point where you have to take disciplinary action.

Some situations that may warrant disciplinary action include:

As a business owner, you’ll have to decide the best course of action to take when disciplining disgruntled employees. But again, just remember to document any disciplinary action, including employee warnings, performance reviews, or probationary periods.

Support your disgruntled employees and get them back on track

Unless a disgruntled employee is truly toxic to your organization, you want to take the steps necessary to support them, help them solve their issues, and get them re-engaged with their work. And now that you know how to manage a disgruntled employee, you have the tools you need to help them get back to being happy, engaged, and committed to your company.

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