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What to Do When Employees Make Employers the Enemy


A group of people talking in a meeting room.

​Employees are resisting a return to the office. Labor strikes have been sweeping the U.S. Job candidates are ghosting recruiters. "HR is not your friend" is trending on TikTok. Right now, the climate in the workplace sure seems like it's employees versus employers. 

From the start of 2020 until now, employee happiness has steadily declined at a rate of 6 percent per year, according to research from Bamboo HR. Last year, employee unhappiness reached an all-time high, with 50 percent of employees saying they are stressed in their jobs, and 18 percent feeling angry on a daily basis.

In a time when many employees and employers are not on the same page—and some employees are making employers into the enemy—what can HR do to help bring both sides together? Here are some insights on how to handle negative employee sentiment and work toward a more positive workplace.

Start by Understanding the Issue

Before taking any concrete steps toward reconciliation, aim to understand what's going on with your employees. Why are they upset?

"The best place to start is through understanding what the root of the issue is," said Allessandria Polizzi, CEO and founder of Verdant Consulting in Sharon, Mass. "Is there something to be learned? What is driving this belief? Often, executives want to dismiss employees who feel this way or, worse, punish them, without seeing the value in getting their feedback."

Polizzi, who oversees four employees, helps companies that have a variety of employee populations. The vast majority of HR professionals are committed to doing what is fair and right, she said, which can't always be said for the people managers they work with.

"There is a common issue with managers hiding behind or blaming HR for difficult news," she said. "Everything from pay raises to promotions can get left at the feet of HR when the decisions are not theirs."

But even when HR professionals are unfairly blamed, they still have to work with employees and try to fix the issue, so it's important to keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions, Polizzi advised.

"Start with inquiry and curiosity about the situation," she said. "Being open to understanding the point of view of others is not the same thing as agreeing. Take in this information as one point of view, and extract what is useful and let go of what is not." 

Have One-on-One Meetings 

Conducting meetings with disgruntled employees can help stop negative sentiment before it spreads. It also gives HR a chance to learn more about the most critical issues in a confidential setting. 

"Host a one-on-one meeting with [the upset employee] to discuss the issues," said Mary Alice Pizana, who oversees HR at Herrman & Herrman P.L.L.C. in Corpus Christi, Texas. "Let them share their side of the story, not interrupting or denying their feelings." 

According to Pizana, who works with 118 employees at the law firm, there have been a few employees who showed animosity toward leadership. HR responded by creating a plan for open communication moving forward. 

"Establishing effective communication channels for building trust between yourself and your employees is essential," she said. "You must build trust and foster healthy relationships in the workplace. Show your appreciation for their hard work and dedication, and be open-minded about making changes."

Commit to Doing Better

Erik Pham, founder and CHRO of Grove City, Ohio-based health news publication Health Canal, told his 100 employees about a new pay structure: Employees who had been with the company since its inception were going to receive additional bonuses.

"This is because at the start, we were not in a position to pay as competitively as we wanted to," Pham said. "Therefore, we felt that because the company had grown and achieved financial stability, we should offer bonuses to account for those times in the beginning when we couldn't pay as we hoped."

While Pham and his team had good intentions, the announcement didn't quite go as planned. "This did not go down well with new employees who felt they had also contributed significantly more to the business," he said.

Pham and his team tried to explain their thinking, but not everyone was convinced, and some employees became frustrated and resentful. Pham apologized for his decision and committed to listening to his employees before making future decisions. He encourages other leaders to do the same.

"Encourage open and transparent communication with your employees," he said. "Allow them to express their concerns and feelings without fear of retaliation. Be a receptive and active listener." 

Let a Problem Employee Go

Sometimes it's best to bring in an outside party, such as a consultant or mediator, to fix a situation that's gotten out of control, advised Andrew Pickett, a lead trial attorney at Andrew Pickett Law in Melbourne, Fla. But if that doesn't work and you've done everything you can to resolve a situation, you may need to terminate an employee who is causing issues. 

"It's important to recognize that sometimes an employee may be too difficult to work with and needs to be let go," he said. "This should only be done as a last resort after all other options have been exhausted. Remember, it's better for the company if this is done with due consideration." 

Pizana agreed, stating it's also crucial to not just terminate the employee out of the blue. "If an employee cannot find a reasonable solution for the issue with management and has received several warnings and reprimands, it is likely time to let them go," she said. 

Polizzi added, "I would only explore separation if it was impacting performance, either of the employee or the team. If employees who speak up are terminated, this undermines psychological safety and can hold back trust, innovation and more."

Building a Culture of Trust

Whenever an employee makes an effort to paint their employer as the enemy, HR needs to be proactive, which should start with addressing the No. 1 workplace issue: culture.

"Creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace where employees have visibility into how decisions are made and executives provide transparency and demonstrate an openness to learn can build a foundation that should pre-empt this type of animosity," Polizzi said. She added that investing in connection, collaboration and curiosity will create spaces for dialogue instead of dissension.

"These are actions to take as an investment for the future of the organization, rather than as a response when things go awry," she said.

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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