From the September 2011 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Six Ways to Identify Unhappy Employees

Happy employees are great employees, but what do you do with employees who aren’t happy?

In my work with advisory practices, I’ve found that the best way to deal with unhappy employees is to build a firm that creates happy—and great—employees. With that said, even the best, most employee-oriented firms, will occasionally have to deal with employees who just aren’t happy. For most advisory firms, the issue of unhappy employees is a lot more common.

After years of experience, I can usually tell when an employee is unhappy just by walking through an office door or in the first few minutes on the phone. Unhappy employees seem to present themselves differently from happy employees or even from employees who are sad. In fact, they aren’t that hard to spot if you make an effort to look for them, especially when you work with people day after day: Unhappy employees have an underlying anger or frustration that permeates their posture, their expressions and even their movements.

Consequently, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem isn’t that firm owners don’t know when they have an unhappy employee; it’s that they often choose to ignore it, either because they don’t want to believe one of their employees is unhappy or because they don’t know what do about it. What I know for sure is that an employee can be unhappy for a very long time, but sooner or later they will blow their steam and it will be an emotional mess. I also know that unhappiness in the workplace, like enthusiasm, is contagious: While one enthusiastic employee can make everyone else enthusiastic, one unhappy employee can bring the whole firm down. It’s far better to address the situation before it becomes a crisis.

In addition to body language, unhappy employees usually exhibit one or more changes in their behavior that often are easier to spot. Here are some of the most common:

Low productivity. While a drop in work output may be difficult to measure, it’s not usually difficult to notice. Employees generally know they’re unhappy and quite often they fear that others will see it. So, rather than leaving early or coming in late, they tend to stay at work, but don’t really work. When the quality or quantity of an employee’s work starts to drop off, it’s important to determine the cause as soon as possible and affect a workable solution to mitigate the damage to the employee themselves and to the morale of the entire office.

Making lame excuses. Another way unhappy employees cover their declining productivity is to find dumb excuses for their poor performance.

Frequently calling in sick. A noticeable increase in sick days for minor ailments is a red flag that something’s up. This kind of behavior, of course, can also signal deeper psychological issues, so it’s important to determine whether an employee has recently begun to find ways to excuse their performance, or if they’ve acted this way throughout their tenure with the firm. If it’s the latter, it’s extremely unlikely that a business owner will be able to uncover the problem, let alone find a workable solution.

Becoming argumentative, snippy or impatient. Again, if this is simply part of an employee’s personality, then a workable solution is probably not in the cards. The owner and the other employees will have to decide whether this behavior can fit into a happy and productive working environment.

Becoming critical of other employees. This, too, can merely be the result of an unpleasant personality trait. But when a formerly happy, supportive employee makes a dramatic 180 and can’t seem to get along with his or her co-workers, it’s time to find out why.

Complaints by other employees. Finally, if an employee’s behavior doesn’t signal to you that there’s a problem (or if you just miss the signs), your other employees often will. Changes in working behavior, especially negative ones, are usually not overlooked by co-workers. In these situations, it’s important not to jump to conclusions: When two employees complain about each other, it’s not always obvious who’s at fault. Instead, reserve judgment and talk to other employees. 

Now for the big question: What should firm owners do once they’ve identified an unhappy employee? In some cases, particularly when managers have been in denial about the unhappiness of an employee, they already know why the employee is unhappy. However, in the majority of cases where the cause isn’t obvious, the only real option is to confront the person about how they feel. It’s important to do it in a supportive, concerned way, rather than critical or accusative.

What you do next is critical. No matter how the employee responds, it’s essential that you don’t take it personally—it’s not about you. Firm owners don’t usually react well to crying in the workplace: They often feel it’s unprofessional and, well, annoying. Try to get past that by remembering that it’s not about you or your comfort level. At this point, your job is to find the source of the employee’s unhappiness.

When confronted with an emotional employee, the question you need to ask is: What do those tears mean? What’s this all about? Often, simply asking these questions will go a long way to alleviating an employee’s unhappiness. When you get to the source of the emotions, you’ll know what the problem is. Here are some common sources of workplace unhappiness:

A change in position or business structure. This is a very common issue as advisory firms grow. Over time, a firm’s first employees can find themselves in a business and in jobs that are very different from those they started with. While they’re happy for the owner’s increased success and their role in it, it’s not unusual for them to have preferred things the way they used to be and secretly harbor resentment for a loss of personal connection to the owner or decline in their stature.

Favoritism. In small businesses, a large part of employee motivation can come from their respect and connection to the owner. If that owner appears to treat some employees better than others, or more fairly than others, it can have a major impact on the motivation and happiness of the rest of the employees.

Personality clashes. Being forced to work closely with someone that you just don’t like can have a major effect on how you feel about your job. Some people work better in groups than others, and a team that likes and respects each other is usually far more productive.

False accusation or blame. When problems inevitably arise in an office, it’s very important the owner or manager take the time to identify the real cause. Few actions are more demotivating than blaming a conscientious worker for someone else’s deficiencies, especially if it happens more than once. This problem is often connected to the favoritism issue.

Lack of growth or unfair loss of a promotion. One of the key elements to employee happiness is feeling that they are getting somewhere or making progress toward some goal. Understanding where your employees want to go and helping them get there is part of good management. So is letting employees know that you are helping them. When you make a promotion, it’s important to talk to the employees who might have been promoted but weren’t, to explain why and let them know how and when they’ll be able to move up.

Uncertainty. Feeling as if their working world is about to change can be very stressful for many employees. This is a growing problem in the advisory world today, with many owner/advisors approaching retirement age. Sometimes an owner won’t have all the answers, but simply talking about the issue often goes a long way to helping employees feel better.

Once an owner has determined the source of unhappiness, the solution is usually pretty obvious. Unfortunately, at this point, many owners will go into advice mode rather than service mode. If the employee could deal with it, they would have done so already. Acknowledge the problem and explain how you’re going to solve it. Of course, sometimes it’s not a problem you care to solve or even can solve. In that case, you need to decide if the employee can be happy in your firm—if not, it’s far better for your firm, and for them, to find a job in which they will be happy.

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