HR Magazine, February 2001: Welcome Back Disgruntled Employees

By Paul Falcone Feb 1, 2001

HR Magazine, February 2001Vol. 46, No. 2

Trying to bring an alienated employee 'back in from the cold' is worth the time and effort.

Employees who are angry see themselves as victims. They justify their feelings by blaming those around them—their supervisors, peers and even customers. And they usually end up isolating themselves from those around them.

But such a situation usually can be turned around—if you can re-inject trust back into the working relationship.

Don’t be naïve, though, about the time commitment necessary to change the situation. Expect it to take as long to rebuild trust as it did to destroy that trust in the first place.

The first question, of course, is “Where to begin?” The answer begins with the observation that employees “give up” at work for two primary reasons:

  • Some disgruntled workers sense a lack of communication; they feel out of the loop with what’s going on, that management doesn’t trust them enough to share important information or that others appear to be “in the know” while they’re left out in the cold.
  • Others believe they receive too little appreciation or recognition for a job well done, while the manager is all over them when they make the slightest mistake.

In either case, the result is apathy. Employees develop a “check out” mentality. They just want to be left alone so they can do their work and leave the office no later than 5:01 p.m. every day.

Of course, this isolation festers over time. Eventually it can lead to increased absenteeism, stress-related disability leave, union grievances, lawsuits and even workplace violence.

It is said there are two kinds of employees who quit companies: those who quit and leave and those who quit and stay. Turning around the “mentally unemployed” will occur only to the extent that you can reinstate a sense of communication and appreciation on the part of the individual. In other words, employees have to feel comfortable coming out of their foxholes.

And if you want a scorned worker to assume responsibility for the problem, you have to be prepared to extend the olive branch by meeting with that employee and accepting some responsibility yourself for the situation. Only then can actual healing begin and the working relationship be reinvented.

Planning a Meeting

Two rules are important in setting up a meeting to deal with situations in which employees seem to have isolated themselves.

Rule No. 1: Decide who should attend. In general, it’s a good idea to invite one tier of management above the supervisor. For example, if you’re the vice president and you’re having ongoing difficulties with your secretary—one who’s fully capable of doing the job but who engages in unnecessary gossiping and otherwise damages employee morale—then invite your boss, the senior vice president, to the meeting. That senior VP will be able to monitor both your behavior and your secretary’s conduct and provide an objective and neutral resource to you both. Or, you can invite someone from your HR department to play a similar role.

Certain senior VPs may reject your invitation to such a meeting, preferring instead to remain as an alternative step in the grievance process should the secretary wish to send a complaint up the management chain. This is certainly an acceptable alternative. However, having a senior manager present in the meeting benefits both you and your secretary by sending the message that two levels of management agree that a problem exists and needs to be fixed. Having the senior VP present also will make it harder for the employee to “divide and conquer” by appealing to the VP after your meeting.

Rule No. 2: Ensure that you and the employee understand the issues before the meeting begins. For the example presented above, the manager should tell the employee something like this:

“I’d like you to report to the senior vice president’s (or human resources) office in 30 minutes. I’m calling this meeting with you because I feel that we’re at an impasse in our communications. I’d like to be able to share with you my perceptions about working with you and why I hesitate to bring things to your attention.

“I’m sure you’ve got certain suggestions for improving our working relationship, especially what I could do differently as your supervisor in giving you structure, direction and feedback. I think having an objective third party at the meeting will help us both to come up with a plan to make our working relationship less stressful and more productive.

“I’m willing to do my part and accept responsibility for the breakdown in our relationship. I’m hoping that you will be, too.”

Conducting the Meeting

Open the meeting by recognizing your perception of the employee’s anger. Begin by asking the employee to share his or her perceptions of your working relationship. Ask such questions as: “Are you satisfied that we’re working as effectively as we can? How do you feel about our working relationship, and in what areas are you most dissatisfied?”

You also should ask the employee to discuss his or her perceptions of the workplace: “How do you see yourself in your role, and how do you feel that other members of the staff see you? What would you change about my supervisory style to make me more effective? What would you do differently if you were in charge?”

The next line of questioning should ask the employee to look at the situation as objectively as possible, almost as if he or she were a third party. Try questions such as: “Do your co-workers have any legitimate gripes with you? Is there anything you could have done to create a perception that you’re distant or somehow uninterested in them? Are there any actions that you may have shown me that were unnecessarily challenging or otherwise disrespectful?”

The most critical part of the meeting is the close, when you focus on the question of changing behaviors. You should note that the employee cannot ask his or her co-workers to change, and co-workers can’t ask the employee to change. Pose questions such as: “What would you be willing to change about yourself in order to elicit a different response from others? How do you see me helping you in the future when you feel frustrated by a lack of communication or recognition?”

Once the employee opens up by admitting he or she is part of the problem, conclude the meeting by also assuming responsibility for the problem with a statement such as: “I’m not asking you to do anything that I’m not willing to do. It’s not my responsibility to motivate you; motivation is internal. But I am responsible for creating an environment in which you and the other folks in our department can motivate themselves. I feel I may have let you down in that area, and I’m committed to reinventing and strengthening our working relationship. Do I have your commitment that you’ll meet me halfway?”

Remember that this is all about hurt feelings, bruised egos and a desire to make a difference at work. Most of those who are “mentally unemployed” want to make a positive difference at work. Their frustration and anger may preclude such a happy and healthy ending.

In the absence of communication, after all, people tend to fill the void by making assumptions that justify their positions. The downward spiral continues when a breakdown in communication results in a feeling of being underappreciated. That’s when feelings of separation and isolation kick in, as well as perceptions of favoritism and unequal treatment.

What’s the danger with this common behavior pattern? At best, a lack of dignity and self-respect will plague one of your staff members. No manager wants that. At worst, when members of protected groups perceive favoritism and unequal treatment, your organization may face charges of disparate treatment and discrimination. Legally, that could be a recipe for punitive damages, and you, the supervisor, could be personally sued, separate and apart from your company, if you were deemed to have been acting outside the course and scope of your employment.

When Employees Won’t Cooperate

But what about those employees who don’t respond to your olive branch?

Certain people, albeit a small percentage, look for drama and histrionics in their lives. Their careers and personal lives appear to be littered with problems, and they see themselves as helpless victims to the fates. Reaching out to this type of employee probably won’t work. However, the meeting still will allow you to confirm your expectations regarding the individual’s performance. As such, it will lay the foundation for a path of progressive discipline to follow.

That written disciplinary documentation will help you fend off or at least minimize the potential damage of any lawsuit down the road. More importantly, you’ll find that when you treat your employees with dignity and respect, they usually will respond in kind.

In any case, that problem employee who’s been treated respectfully will more than likely leave your company after a few months. After all, if working for you no longer gives him the drama and intrigue he needs in life, he may end up departing quietly in pursuit of other, more challenging workplace relationships. His resignation also will be a win-win for you and your company.

The “psychic income” that comes from a job well done is at least as important to all of us, if not more so, than a paycheck. Give your employees their dignity back and enable them to make a positive difference rather than just punch a clock “putting in their time.” Your goodwill will go a long way toward inviting them back to the table and allowing them to feel accepted again. That’s turning lemons into lemonade, and it’s what leadership, management and retention are all about.

Paul Falcone is director of employment and development at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, Calif. He is the author of three books published by AMACOM, including 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination (1999) and 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire (1997). This article represents the views of the author solely as an individual and not in any other capacity.


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