Six Best Practices for Unhappy Employees
Unhappy employees in your organization must be addressed by leadership. The six best practices are:
- Assess the situation thoroughly
- Don't wait
- Privacy is key
- Cool is the best temperament
- It takes time
- Keep records
If you can’t save a disgruntled employee, it may be time to move on.
 The challenge of an unhappy employee
Leading a team isn’t easy, and it requires specific skills that not everybody has. Even if you have these skills in spades, at some point, you’ll find yourself faced with the challenge of dealing with an unhappy employee. If you handle this well, you may be able to turn an unhappy performer into a star employee who just needed a little attention and care. If not, you could lose that same would-be star performer due to job dissatisfaction, or worse, find yourself facing legal action from a disgruntled employee.
While it’s rare for things to get that serious, it’s still important to protect yourself by learning the six best practices for managing unhappy employees.
 Assess the situation thoroughly
Though only a few letters different in spelling, assess and assume are two very different words. Before you jump to any conclusions, take the time to dig in and really find out what’s going on with the individual. Find out why they’re upset. They could be upset with you, their current job status or another member of the staff. It’s also possible that they are unhappy due to something unrelated to their time at work.
If the issue stems from something within your company, gather as much information as you can before deciding how to act. But even if it’s a lifestyle factor influencing your employee’s behavior, don’t ignore it just because it comes from outside your four walls. Use it as an opportunity to show them that they’re more than just a name on an HR folder.
Offering assistance, whether through a formal employee assistance program or other means, will build their loyalty to your company.
 Don’t wait
The best time to address the situation was yesterday. The second best time is today. The longer you wait to address the issue after it’s been identified, the more time it will have to fester, adding fuel to the fire. It may not be a fun-filled conversation, but it needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Additionally, after confronting the situation, it may be necessary to address the rest of the staff. If there is talk amongst your employees, nip rumors in the bud. A short, concise statement letting other employees know that a situation has been addressed can save you a lot of meeting time and HR heartache in the long run.
 Privacy is key
While the staff as a whole may need to be addressed after the situation is resolved, initially, it’s best to meet with the unhappy staff member one on one. This option not only protects you from the employee voicing their complaints for everyone else to hear, but also provides a perception of safety to the employee. They may be willing to disclose their real reason for unhappiness and a resolution may be reached in private, one that would not happen without the confidentiality found behind closed doors.
In addition, this privacy will protect both you and the employee legally. Thoroughly document the conversations you have with the employee, as well as the details of any resolutions you come to. Type up your notes, print them out and have the employee sign them to prevent “he said, she said” confusion from affecting your working environment in the future.
 Cool is the best temperament
Working in a hot office is uncomfortable, whether you’re referring to the temperature or to the level-headedness of the bosses. It’s more important than ever to keep your head on straight when handling an unhappy employee. If they begin to get upset, simply speak gently and allow them time to calm down. If the situation escalates, ask them kindly to remain professional.
If nothing seems to help, remove yourself from the situation and allow them space to express their anger privately, without you there. Employees who aren’t comfortable handling their emotions may need some time to process them alone before they’re able to come back and have a professional conversation.
 It takes time
As business professionals, we want to fix things immediately. While this is a great attitude to have overall, it doesn’t work in every situation. A quick turnaround in employee morale can really drive efficiency and productivity, but it isn’t always possible.
Keep in mind when dealing with an unsatisfied staff member that it may take more than one meeting to iron out the problem. If someone has been unhappy for a month, it may not be possible to bring the sunshine out from the rain in just an hour.
This can be frustrating to entrepreneurs who are used to moving quickly, but during these times, remember that you owe it to your company and your employee to continue to work through the situation.
 Keep records
Above and beyond all else, document your conversations, meetings and outcomes. This is for your safety and the employee’s, and it just might save you from a lawsuit. We all hope to resolve meetings with everyone wearing a genuine smile, clapping our hands and admiring our dedication as they tell us, “Thank you for everything you’ve done.” Productivity picks up, and everybody goes back to being one big happy working family. Unfortunately, efforts to address and resolve the issues of unhappy employees don’t all end this way. Instead of a positive outcome, you may find yourself in the position of issuing a performance improvement plan or laying the groundwork for an eventual termination.
Whatever the case may be, make sure to keep records of any warnings given or actions taken. These records may be vital later if the employee takes legal action against your company. As a business owner and leader, it’s important to create and keep handy a number of different standardized human resources documents (such as a disciplinary action form) that you can pull from and use on an ongoing basis. Doing so will help you excel in tough situations where clear processes and documentation are key to bringing about change.
Not every job is right for everyone. Although it’s your job to coach and develop the employees who are the right fit, it’s equally your responsibility to recognize the ones who aren’t and figure out the best time to part ways. If you can’t save a disgruntled employee, it may be time to move on.
 Related Best Practices
- The Power of Disgruntled Employees, Cheryl Conner, Forbes, 2014. Covers the negative impacts disgruntled employees have on an organization.
- The Enormous Cost of Unhappy Employees, Ariana Ayu, Inc. Magazine, 2014.
The author of this page is Sujan Patel.
Sujan Patel is an experienced entrepreneur and marketer. He currently serves as VP of marketing at When I Work -- an employee scheduling software solution for small businesses. He previously founded Digital Marketing Agency, Single Grain. In his nine years as CEO of Single Grain, he grew the company from a part-time consulting venture to a powerhouse marketing agency with 23 employees, 50+ clients and more than $3 million in annual revenue, helping clients like Anki, Sales Force, RingCentral, CafePress, Mint, TurboTax, BlueHost, LinkedIn and Sony navigate the world of internet marketing.