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Staying Out of Harm’s Way: Handling Disgruntled Employees

By Sherri Bennett, SPHR & SHRM-CP on Jun 21, 2019
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2017 was the most violent year in recent history for workplace shootings, which are increasingly common. The FBI reported that there were more “active shooter” incidents and related homicides that year than in any 12-month period since at least 2000, the first year the agency has related data. During the 30 mass shootings in 2017, a record 138 people were killed. Previously, the highest death toll for a single year was 90.

Disgruntled current or former employees are often the perpetrators. And, even if they don’t bring a gun to work and start firing, this group of undesirable employees can still harm their former coworkers and your business.

3 Steps to Handling a Disgruntled Employee

  1. Identifying a Disgruntled Employee
  2. Handling a Disgruntled Employee
  3. Terminating a Disgruntled Employee

Workplace Violence: Most Active Shooter Incidents Occur at Work

Identifying Disgruntled Employees

Disgruntled employees are disengaged complainers who actively undermine productivity, morale and your company’s reputation through a variety of damaging behaviors:

  • Tardiness
  • Absenteeism
  • Lack of motivation, participation, passion and creativity
  • Negative attitude
  • Poor performance
  • Speaking out against supervisors, company actions and policies

Most disgruntled employees are unhappy with their jobs for specific reasons – many of which can be addressed. Sometimes, all it takes is a private conversation to figure out how to solve the problem or simply allow them to vent their frustrations. In some cases, however, the signs a disgruntled employee exhibits may be a precursor to workplace violence.

Related: Toxic Employees: You've Identified One At Your Business, Now What? >>

Handling Disgruntled Employees

Train management and staff to recognize red flags that can lead to aggression, such as threats, property destruction, overt hostility, and talk of suicide. Make it clear to employees that such behavior should immediately be reported to management.

A disgruntled employee’s attitude can infect the rest of your team. So, when you identify an angry employee, address the issue immediately to help ensure the malaise does not spread to others.

Be careful to handle interactions with disgruntled employees professionally, and keep the atmosphere as positive as possible. Provide a private outlet for them to discuss grievances, but don’t empower them by addressing them at the expense of normal business operations. Maintain your composure, and document the employee’s behavior in case it recurs and disciplinary action is necessary.

Related: How to Terminate a Remote Employee >>

The following best practices may help transform a disgruntled employee into a productive worker:

  • Express trust. When your employees feel trusted to deal with their dissatisfaction and their work in general, they’re more likely to be engaged, high performers.
  • Provide training. Employees who lack confidence in their job performance often become unhappy at work. To prevent (or remedy) this situation, provide adequate professional development opportunities.
  • Follow up. After your initial conversations, check-in with the employee to see if his or her perspective has improved. Maintaining communication helps the employee feel valued and creates opportunities to identify whether further corrective measures are necessary.

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Terminating Disgruntled Employees

If an employee continues to be disruptive despite your best efforts to resolve the situation, it may be time to consider termination. As we’ve witnessed across the country, dismissing disgruntled employees and simultaneously cutting them off from support may lead to acts of retribution and might result in liability if they attack former colleagues.

The best remedy is to minimize the emotion inherent in an employee termination at the outset. How terminations are handled is a critical factor in determining whether or not the ousted employee will elevate negative feelings to another level post-termination. Employees who characterize their termination as unfair, unexpected or vindictive are more likely to respond in a vengeful manner.

You often can mitigate the emotional backlash and a terminated employee’s desire for revenge through a progressive disciplinary system tied to meaningful employee evaluations. Such a process gives employees fair warning and a chance to improve.

Related: Chasing the Silver Lining: How to Overcome Negativity in the Workplace >>

Take these steps to minimize the risk a former disgruntled employee will try to harm your company or your employees:

  • Give clear direction for the desired improvement in accordance with your company’s disciplinary policies, which should be communicated to all employees.
  • Train managers to effectively communicate their concerns to employees.
  • Accurately document the employee’s quality of work in regular performance reviews, which may ultimately serve to validate your decision to terminate.

10 Steps for Successful Offboarding

When terminating a disgruntled – or any employee – follow these best practices. Take extra precautions when firing employees who are angry or believe they have been unfairly treated, especially if you have any indication they could pose a post-employment danger to you or your staff:

  1. Have a neutral manager or outside consultant carry out the termination.
  2. Be brief, straightforward, composed, and respectful during the termination process.
  3. If possible, position a security guard or law enforcement officer nearby.
  4. Do not take a break during the termination meeting, as some disgruntled employees request time to privately compose themselves so they can retrieve weapons.
  5. Consider offering outplacement services.
  6. Offer severance benefits and emphasize any outside help that may be available.
  7. Consider allowing them to resign instead so they may qualify for unemployment benefits and maintain some level of dignity.
  8. Separate completely. Don’t invite them back for company events, and minimize the reasons the terminated employee would need to revisit the workplace.

Related: Know Before They Go: How to Ease the Pain of Employee Departures >>

Terminate disgruntled employees with kid gloves. Don’t immediately seek a restraining order against former employees who begin taking harmful actions against your company, as this could further aggravate them. If social media slander is the problem, give it time, as instances of former employees posting harsh words online may eventually run their course.

That said, when a terminated employee’s posts or other actions become menacing, take proactive measures to keep your employees safe. Report threats to the proper authorities, and involve law enforcement immediately if a visibly angry former employee returns to the workplace.

Keep track of any negative interactions after an employee is fired to document offenses. Before you take legal action – which should be a last resort – try to work directly with the ex-employee or with authorities to remediate the situation.

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