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First Quarter 2003 Volume 11 Number 1

The Unhappy Employee: Does Your Company Have One?

By Nejolla B. Korris, The Sponsorship Group Ltd.

Ask any supervisor or manager what they consider to be their toughest challenge on the job and, eventually, they will tell you it's a disgruntled or unhappy employee. Forget the pressures to produce, deadlines or excessive overtime; dealing with a miserable co-worker drains the entire team. There have been many situations in which a manager becomes obsessed with this employee and spends the bulk of their day finding ways to get back at them; an expensive corporate game of cat and mouse. The consequences of harbouring an unhappy employee without dealing with their problems can lead to excessive absenteeism, theft, fraud and, in the worst cases, workplace violence.

Anatomy of the Unhappy Employee

The workplace is a complex social network. Within this network, life is lived with a complete assortment of human emotions; fear, anger, joy, trust and suspicion to name just a few. Every time something goes right -- sales targets are achieved, a project is completed or a new order is placed -- it's because people got the job done. Similarly, when something goes wrong -- a project falls apart or a deal is lost -- it's because people dropped the ball along the way.

Most employees start their new jobs with the best intentions. They want to be accepted, respected and loyal to their employer. After all, we spend more time at our jobs than we do with our families. As a result, we all want to contribute something of value to society. Rarely will we find a new employee who wants to cause harm to their employer. As many people define themselves by the jobs they hold, these same people expect the job to deliver on a promise of "happily ever after." How then, do things deteriorate when they start out with such great promise?

  • Although employees do promise to love, honour and obey their employer, conflict no doubt will arise eventually. People are born to disagree; they have individual opinions and different motivations that lead to an eventual clash. If the clash is dealt with unfairly, the honeymoon period will end sooner than expected.
  • Both employee and employer will question whether the hiring decision was right or a mistake. The feelings of betrayal are no different than those found in personal relationships. "You're not who I thought you were" or "you've changed" echo in the minds of the employee and employer. Second-guessing the hiring choice at this point can start the cycle of insecurity and looking over one's shoulder.
  • Conflict is dealt with in different ways in different companies. Is a differing or dissenting opinion by a staff member looked upon with disdain or is it considered a healthy difference of opinion? Are performance reviews carried out in a fair and uniform manner by all supervisors or are some tougher with their praise than others?

How hard is it to recognize the unhappy employee? They are the individuals who are the obvious outsiders looking in and still trying to belong. Ostracizing these people starts small; usually with a comment or two, undermining their work, forgetting to invite them to meetings, passing them over for raises and promotions. The other side of this equation brings an equivalent amount of reactions: anger toward the boss, defensive behaviour, paranoia, increased sick days, etc. By the time we reach this point, too many people are sitting on the sidelines watching and are not willing to get involved. It becomes a poisonous disease permeating the workplace.

Does It Have to Be This Way?

People are motivated by their emotions. Good, loving emotions lead to wanting to prosper on the job while negative emotions usually bring on an onslaught of non-productive behaviours and create malicious employees. It doesn't matter whether at home or at work, people despise dealing with conflict. It is uncomfortable, yet the conflict arises because we think, act and are, different from one another. Simple? Yet this rarely comes in to play when assessing workplace volatility. When we fully embrace this realization, life at work would become so much simpler. A fortune cookie contained the message, "Love is like war: easy to begin, hard to end." No truer than in the workplace.

Accountability for workplace behaviours begins with the top. Recognizing any of these signs means that an organization needs delicate intervention:

  • Conflicts are ignored for long periods of time
  • Employee feelings of futility
  • Staff spends most of their time on protecting themselves and their jobs
  • Excessive complaining and negativity
  • Lack of teamwork
  • Management doesn't want to acknowledge conflict.

It is possible to take action and gain a favourable reaction from the "scorned" employee with some tender loving care. Express appreciation and praise and make it clear that you are committed to making things better. Consider a third party to assist in bridging conflict and building trust again. Make the commitment to change the environment with the personnel you currently have. Terminations are not always the answer. The answer lies with the supervisory practices of each individual that manages staff.

The Realities of Unhappiness

The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners estimates that the average firm loses $9 USD per employee per day, to fraud and abuse in the United States. Those losses amount to about $4 billion USD per year. A similar Canadian study conducted by Ernst & Young in 2001 reported that one in four Canadian employees either committed fraud against their employer or witnessed it within the previous year. Employees who are happy with their jobs rarely cause these losses; rather, employees who have a problem with their employer perpetuate them. CN

About the Author
Nejolla Korris is CEO of The Sponsorship Group Ltd., Edmonton. She can be reached at nkorris@compusmart.ab.ca or 780/457-6900.


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