Are Disgruntled Employees Really A “Lost Cause”?

Let’s face it – between “life” issues and work, we find many of today’s employees are disgruntled in one way or another.  For some, the situation is temporary…for others, it becomes a daily attitude they display.  But, does that mean you – as the Employer – should take the stance of either reprimanding them for their “poor work performance” or just wait and hope that they will quit?  Are these once valuable employees dispensable now that they have a “bad attitude”?

I had an instance once where a manager approached me soon after starting with the company to talk about “how do we get rid of this employee.”  The employee in question had been doing her job, as expected, but wasn’t giving 100% anymore and was always walking around complaining about how she hated her job now.  I was taken back by the manager’s request to “find” a way to get rid of her…implying that we had just cause based on her attitude and slack in performance.

Because I was raised to believe that there are two sides to every story and the truth is somewhere in between, I decided to approach the employee and have an informal talk with her.  I wanted to hear her side of the story and see if there was more to the situation that could possibly be fixed.

She had no problem sharing her frustrations with me, as you could imagine, but the information she shared was eye opening.  She talked about not liking the position for a while and trying to talk to her manager about possibly moving into another role but repeatedly told “you just need to change your attitude.”  She told me she had offered suggestions for projects she could start and work on but was always told “no” without her manager giving her the chance to hear her out.  Then, her perception was that the manager just “had it out for her” as a female because the male employees that came to work in the department appeared to get the better tasks and projects to work on…even those that were brand new!

That last revelation – and her perception of how she was being treated – happens quite often…once a manager decides they don’t think you are a fit as an employee but you are still doing your job so they have no real “cause” to terminate you, they will begin to engage in tactics to “get the employee to quit.”  It borderlines a “hostile work environment” in many cases and some employees have gone on to pursue legal action against the company as a result (which most managers never believe the employee will do).

I decided to ask her what were the suggestions she had that she tried to offer…part out of curiosity and part because my opinion is that the company owed her that much – to at least hear her out.  The next 20min was amazing!  She had seen a need for a new position within the department that would help organize sales and process orders much quicker…and she felt she was the right person for the job.

So, I challenged her: come up with your own job description along with any training, equipment, etc that you would need to setup and carry out the job and, together, we will pitch it to the manager.  She did and the manager was hesitant but said he would let her give it a try for the next 30days.  If it didn’t work out, then she was back in her original role.

The end result: The employee remained in the position for 3 years!  What she envisioned was possible and the manager even commented later on to me that he was pleased in the turn-around in her attitude.

Morale of the story: Perception can be the devil.  You never really know the situation or possible solutions until you sit down and have a simple conversation with that employee.  If that is the “first step” you take as a manager to dissolve the situation with a disgruntled employee, a solution may be found much sooner before attitudes deteriorate or performance slacks.  If you aren’t open to listening to the employee, don’t be surprised when the start “coping an attitude!”

Sometimes, it may even benefit you to enlist the help of a third-party.  Having your HR professional talk to the employee in a less defensive environment may diffuse the situation.  They are also in a better position to talk to the employee about changing they can make to help their situation or suggest that maybe moving on to another company will make them happier.

A disgruntled employee doesn’t have to be a lost cause!  Remember: you hired them for a reason.  They were your top choice at one time and you viewed them as an asset to the company.  You put time and money into training them and getting them up to speed so they could be successful at their position.  Don’t throw in the towel without giving one last try – a “real” try with an open mind.  You might just surprise yourself.

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