How to Deal With a Disgruntled Employee (A Brief HR Guide)

October 31, 2018 by Josh Hrala

Even if you spend countless hours trying to make a wonderful culture at your organization, there’s always a risk that you will run across a disgruntled employee.

For HR, it’s important to handle disgruntled employees in a way that can get them back on board before they become the rotten apple in your otherwise harmonious organization.

But how? How should HR work with disgruntled employees to make them feel better? And what options do you have if they continue their activities?

In this brief guide, we will look at how to handle a disgruntled employee and what best practices are available to make the process as easy as possible for everyone involved. First, though, if you are having behavioral issues with a worker that has gone beyond them being upset, you can download our employee warning notice here:

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Let’s jump into the basics.

What Is a Disgruntled Employee?

A disgruntled employee is an employee who is dissatisfied with their job and is prone to ‘grumbling’ about it. The term ‘disgruntled’ actually comes from an old word ‘gruntled,’ which means ‘to grunt.’

In other words, a disgruntled employee is someone at your organization that is – more often than not – upset and showing it by, you probably guessed it, grumbling.

Any organization can have a disgruntled employee or two. Many times, workers get upset for small reasons like a coworker not helping them on a project, someone stealing their ideas as their own, or not getting a pay increase. Sometimes, an employee may even be disgruntled because of something at home, which is almost completely out of the organization’s control.

So, no matter how well you run your organization, you may come up against a disgruntled employee from time to time.

Disgruntled Employee

Like we said, most of the time, these employees can be soothed by HR or managers by addressing their concerns and hearing them out. No one likes to feel like they aren’t listened to.

However, there are some situations where disgruntled employees can fester and start to erode your company’s culture from the inside out. This should be avoided at all costs.

Why You Need to Address Disgruntled Employees

One disgruntled employee can be easier to manage than a bunch of disgruntled employees. That’s just logic.

This means, though, that you need to quickly handle disgruntled employees before they spread their dissatisfaction throughout the ranks.

“The problem with disgruntled employees is that they can pose a risk to your company. In addition to providing poor service, thus turning customers off, they may also create a negative working environment, creating stress within the company,” reports American Express.

“Some disgruntled employees may purposely set out to cause whatever harm they can to the company, from spreading rumors to stealing money and equipment.”

It’s vital that you work with disgruntled employees before this happens, creating a sense of urgency to handle the situation as soon as you know it exists.

Disgruntled Employee

This leads us to our next point. How are you supposed to know that you have a disgruntled employee on your hands in the first place?

Identifying Disgruntled Employees

The good news – if you can call it that in this situation – is that there are numerous ways to identify disgruntled employees in your workforce.

In fact, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) provides a complete list of issues to look out for.

They include:

  • Poor Performance: One of the tell tale signs an employee is dissatisfied is when their performance drops. This is where constant feedback and performance monitoring can come in handy.
  • Absenteeism: When an employee suddenly starts taking a lot of time off, such as increased sick days or just simply not showing up, it’s a red flag that they may not enjoy coming to work and would rather skip going in at all. There could be other reasons for this, though, such as harassment or even a family issue outside of the office. Either way, always check in to see what’s going on.
  • Bad Attitude: Possibly the easiest way to tell how someone is feeling is the way they handle conversations, meetings, and their job activities. It’s pretty simple to gauge someone’s attitude, especially in an in-person meeting. If someone’s attitude changes and doesn’t bounce back, it’s definitely a sign that something is wrong.
  • Team Performance Drops: This goes hand-in-hand with the employee’s attitude. If the person is unhappy with their job, they will likely pull back their support when it comes to teamwork. Pay close attention to how your possibly disgruntled employee works with others.

There are many things that can help you spot whether or not you have a disgruntled employee. As you can see from SHRM’s list, most of them are pretty common sense.

If the employee isn’t performing well, takes a lot of days off, has a bad attitude, and an inability to work well with others, chances are they are disgruntled. Even if they aren’t, these issues should give you pause because the worker is likely not a good fit your organization.

How to Avoid Having Disgruntled Employees in the First Place

Understanding how to spot a disgruntled employee is always a good skill to have. However, a better skill would be understanding what environments, situations, and triggers can create a disgruntled employee in the first place.

Again, SHRM has a list of issues that can come into play here. We won’t extrapolate on them all, but the list is telling just by itself.

They include:

  • Disrespectful Treatment or Regard
  • Lack of Recognition
  • Favoritism (usually through promotions or the lack thereof)
  • A Poor Performance Review
  • Bullying
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Lack of Career Growth or Financial Gain
  • Domestic Issues Outside of the Workplace (health, marriage, etc)

As you can see from this list, these issues can spring up at any organization. Some of these items are even outside of your control, such as something happening at home for the employee.

The real goal of this list is to provide you a way to constantly monitor issues inside your company that can trigger dissatisfaction. Knowing these issues can help you reduce the amount of disgruntled employees in general while also making your workplace better overall.

Now, let’s move on to how to actually manage a disgruntled employee if you should come across one.

How to Manage a Disgruntled Employee

Even if you take all of the precautions listed above, know what to look for in a disgruntled employee, and – generally – do the best you can to avoid having a disgruntled employee, you need to know how to handle the situation if it arises.

Disgruntled Employee

The first step is to remain professional.

“Regardless of how the disgruntled employee behaves, it is important for you to always remain professional when handling the situation,” reports American Express.

“Avoid yelling, swearing and stooping to their level. Remember that this is not usually personal, and that it needs to be handled in a professional manner, on behalf of the company.”

HR needs to remain level-headed and extremely professional when dealing with upset employees. This is true when a layoff happens, a performance review is handled poorly, or any other situation. But it is especially important when the employee is already dissatisfied.

The second most important thing is to address the issue quickly. Do not, we repeat, do not let disgruntled employees fester. The longer you wait; the harder the problem will become to fix.

If you identify an issue, make sure to follow up on it in the shortest amount of time possible.

When you follow up, make sure to keep it professional and private. Giving your employee some privacy to talk through their feelings is always recommended and will greatly increase the likelihood that you will be able to fix the problem to the best of your ability.

During this whole process, you need to keep records in case the employee doesn’t change their actions.

Disciplining employees is never an easy thing to do. Stopping the problem before it gets to that point is definitely more advisable. However, in case all of your efforts fall through, you need to have a record of the employee’s behavior so that you can act accordingly if you need to.

Disgruntled Employee

The final step is to make sure you are now bowing out to the disgruntled employee. For example, if your company is stalling on all other activities to deal with the problems one employee is causing, you have empowered the dissatisfied employee, which is never a good idea, American Express reports.

“If your disgruntled employee has the company stalled while everyone tries to deal with their drama, then they are being empowered,” they say.

“Do not give them that kind of power within your company. If there is a problem, have the most appropriate person address it, and keep everyone else on task.”

Use an Employee Warning Notice

Like we mentioned briefly before, if you cannot get the disgruntled employee to change their behavior, the last step is disciplinary action.

Organizations differ quite drastically when it comes to handling employee discipline. Some company’s have a strike system where employees are given the chance to improve. Some are harsher. Some have different levels, such as a verbal warning, written warning, suspension, and eventually a firing.

It depends on how you conduct these events inside your own organization, but you should still have a way to warn employees that they have broken a rule or are causing issues internally.

This is where an employee warning notice can come in handy. You can download ours here:

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Not only does the notice serves as a warning to your staff member, it also creates documentation if the issues persist.

Dealing With Disgruntled Employees: The Final Word

When it comes to disgruntled employees, you need to make sure you have all of the necessary tools and knowledge to deal with them.

Remember that there are a bunch of reasons for an employee to become dissatisfied with their job. Some of these issues you can correct internally. Others are more complicated, such as a divorce or at-home financial issue.

Learn what issues can cause a disgruntled employee to act certain ways and what the best practices are to quell the situation. Sometimes, all it takes is a chat with the employee to figure out how to solve the issue. Always address disgruntled employees quickly to make sure their malaise doesn’t spread to other members of your team.

Make sure to handle interactions with disgruntled employees in a professional way that allows them to discuss the issues without turning all of the power over to them. You need to maintain control and composure.

Always document these issues in case they pop up again later. You will also need to have a clear disciplinary plan if employees continue to be disruptive.

If you follow these steps, you can better ensure that your organization will thrive long into the future.

Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

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