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.