How To Manage Unhappy Employees

Anna Roberts

Oct 2016 ⋅ 6 min read

Good managers can't always keep employees happy.

You're going to have to deal with disgruntled employees at some point during your managerial career, and the way you respond to these situations often defines how successful you are as a manager.

One unhappy employee can derail an entire team - or even damage the prospects of your whole company.

If you're more of a glass-half-full kind of person, think of it this way: by managing a disgruntled employee in an effective way you can see them become one of your top performing, most dedicated employees.

That's the ideal scenario, anyway!

Dealing with unhappy employees isn't easy, but it's your responsibility as a manager to try to work through problems and hold your team together.

Let's break down the resolution process into three steps. Click on the headers to jump to each section.

Identify the Problem

man studying and thinking

First of all, you need to learn to notice the signs of a disgruntled employee.

That sounds straightforward, but many unhappy employees will hide their displeasure. Instead of looking out for grumpy-faced employees, keep watch for employees who exhibit one or more of the following behaviours...

  • Distance themselves from meetings, group projects and workplace social events
  • Suddenly begin to turn up late and leave as soon as they can
  • Loss of enthusiasm
  • Drop in work quality
  • Significant change in outlook and behaviour

You should also pay attention to any comments or concerns made by the employee's coworkers.

Once you realise something is upsetting or annoying an employee, the next step is to find out what the source of the issue is.

This can be extremely difficult, particularly if your company culture isn't known for being open and friendly. Also, the employee might be having personal problems that they hardly want to share with their manager.

The employee may also be afraid that their job could be at risk if they say the wrong thing.

Therefore, when speaking to a disgruntled employee, take this approach:

  • Speak to them privately. Regardless of how the employee behaves, always have discussions with them behind closed doors. You don't want to drag more people into the issue.
  • Remain professional. Even if you disagree profusely with the employee's complaints, respond only with a cool head. You won't improve matters by raising your voice or using language you'll later come to regret.
  • Don't push the issue. Don't insist that the employee must tell you the nature of the problem they're facing. Just explain that you're ready and willing to listen.
  • Ask what you can do to help. You can probably make a couple of small changes to make things easier for the employee. This could involve reviewing a process, changing working hours or simply giving the employee a couple of days of extra paid leave to help resolve their problem.

The employee may or may not be open to communicating honestly with you, but the important thing is to listen and show that you're open to further dialogue.

Damage Control

securely locked padlock on wooden gate

If the issue is easily resolved, you won't need to worry about damage control.

On the other hand, if any resolution is going to take time (if it's at all possible, that is), then you're going to have to engage in some damage control.

We've all worked in a team where one negative individual has ruined the environment for the rest of us.

As a manager, you need to prevent this from happening.

The steps you take will depend on why the employee's disgruntled, but here are some basic guidelines you can follow to try to reduce the effect an unhappy employee has on morale.

  • Deal with the issue ASAP. The longer you let an employee's resentment fester, the bigger an impact it has. Don't delay speaking with an unhappy employee.
  • If the employee airs their grievances publicly, ask their colleagues if they feel the same way. It's important to understand where the rest of the team stands on the issue so that you can form a better response.
  • Take steps to prevent the employee from holding the company hostage. If the disgruntled employee plays a critical role in a critical task at your business, draft in other employees to cover their tasks. This will contain the damage and stop the employee from being deliberately disruptive.
  • Only assign one person to manage to the situation. This arrangement keeps the issue private and protects other managers (and senior managers) from the disruption.
  • Don't dismiss employee concerns - even if they seem minor or unimportant. Similarly, telling an employee to calm down is only likely to make them angrier. Try to step into the employee's shoes and better understand their frustrations.
  • Communicate progress. If you're taking steps to resolve the issues but it's slow going, keep the employee in the loop. They'll only become more disgruntled if they think you aren't taking the action you said you would.
  • Document everything. Just to be on the safe side, keep a record of every meeting and communication with the unhappy employee. This will help protect you in case of legal action.

If the employee is annoyed because of something or someone at work, your natural reaction might be to defend your company and its approach. Being defensive is only likely to exacerbate the situation. If the issue is unrelated to work, offer your support as an employer and try to reduce the impact that work has on their personal life.


team handshake

Now for the difficult part.

Few workplace issues are easy to solve. When an employee is disgruntled by your carefully optimised processes or is at loggerheads with another member of the team, there's no straightforward way out.

It's very rare to find a solution that all parties are happy with.

Settling for a compromise is often the most diplomatic resolution, but the employee is likely to remain disappointed, particularly if you were only able to devise a short-term fix.

Alternatively, you could use an employee's complaints as the basis of a review into certain company processes and procedures. Perhaps the employee could play a hand in the decision-making process even if they're not normally involved.

Again, this review might not have the outcome the employee desired, but it may help them better understand the viewpoints of other employees.

In some situations, you won't be able to offer a satisfactory resolution to the employee. You may have to consider disciplinary action (or dismissal) in the following situations:

  • The employee is affecting the ability of the rest of their team or department to do their jobs.
  • The employee is showing no signs of improvement after weeks or months of attempting to resolve the situation.
  • They refuse to communicate or compromise.

You should have disciplinary policies in place to help guide you through this process, if necessary.

A final word of caution: unhappy employees might make their frustrations known publicly if they're dismissed. Try to part on the right note.

Overall, resolution doesn't necessarily mean acquiescing to your employee's requests. In some instances, dismissal may be the right option for everyone involved.

However, if you are able to come to a satisfactory resolution you'll have the goodwill of the formerly disgruntled employee. This goodwill can stretch far.

Final Thoughts

Negative employees are a huge burden on any team. Taking swift action to listen to and respond to concerns can help you avert disaster, but in some situations, you won't be able to reach a positive outcome.

Regardless, if you manage unhappy employees poorly you'll not only cause short-term disruption in the office, but also lose the trust of your employees. This can have a serious impact on engagement and positivity at work.

Dealing with unhappy employees isn't rocket science. It's all about open, frequent, professional communication.

After more management tips? Check out other staff management articles on the RotaCloud blog!