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The Disgruntled Employee: Tips for Success

leadership Aug 15, 2021

Good Leadership Skills Can Quickly Create Successful Outcomes


Dennis Guzik


5 days ago·6 min read



OK, if you are a boss, you will either have had or will have a disgruntled employee. Their performance is subpar, their attitude poor, and they do not seem happy with what they are doing. How you handle that individual is critical, not only to your business, but also to how others perceive you as a leader, including the disgruntled employee. This article will explore your options and provide some recommendations.

The Situation

As a boss you’ve either had, or will have, a disgruntled employee. By that I mean someone with an attitude that is performing below expectations, or maybe their negativity is rubbing off on their co-workers. They are “mailing it in” vice being an active participant in the work that is necessary for the business to succeed.

This situation is not uncommon. In my time as a Marine Officer and as a corporate manager I’ve seen this multiple times.

There can be several reasons for this sort of employee. Maybe they hate the work. Maybe they are being asked to do something for which they were not hired (either from the start, or the work changed). Maybe its something outside of work that is causing them stress or anxiety, and that is bleeding over to their performance. Or maybe they are just plain lazy, or unmotivated.

The Easy (and very often wrong) way out

The fastest, and least work, approach to handling this is to tell the disgruntled worker that they are not cutting it. That their performance must improve or they will be terminated. Leave no doubt in their mind that if things don’t change, they will be out of a job. That ought to take care of it, right? They’ll get the message and become an ideal employee very quickly, or they will be out of your hair. You’re the boss, and you handled it like a boss! Right?

A Better Approach

Probably not. The odds are this will cause the disgruntled worker to become even more disgruntled. They might begin to talk with co-workers about what an unfair and mean boss you are. They may also begin looking for (1) a new job, and (2) ways to subtly hurt not only their own performance, but also their co-workers, with the ultimate goal of making you look bad. But there is another approach, one that a leader, vice a boss, would take. Let’s take a look at what that might be.

You observe that the employee is not happy with the work and is performing poorly. Maybe if you hired that employee you had high hopes for them, but now you aren’t so sure you made the right decision, even though you took care to try to pick the best of the candidates. So, what’s next?

Ask to meet with them in a private, non-threatening manner. Your initial objective is to get to what it is that is bothering them, that is causing them to be disgruntled.

Maybe they are frustrated by the way things are being done within the business. This could be processes and procedures being used, or working conditions that are worse than they should be. On top of that, their performance is being evaluated but the use of the established procedures lessens their productivity, and they are not happy that their performance is hindered by unnecessary processes.

This is actually a wonderful result of this conversation. Two good outcomes that can result are the leader recognizes that things need to change, takes suggestions from the employee, and makes corrections that result in not only improvement from the employee, but possibly an improvement for all the employees. On top of that, other employees see that the leader is open to suggestions and improvement, and the leader’s standing improves.

However, a second outcome that can result from this discussion is that the disgruntled employee learns WHY things are the way they are, and their better understanding results in less disgruntlement. I’ve seen this when an employee makes, what they think are, recommendations for change only to be told that those changes are contrary to things like labor laws that the leader cannot unilaterally change. Not as good an outcome as the first case, but still better than a misunderstanding of why things are the way they are and continued disgruntlement.

Another possible outcome is that you find that it is something outside of work that is the root of the employee’s lack of engagement and attitude. You have to be careful about asking about too much of their personal situation, but the fact is work is not life, and outside factors do impact work performance. In this case it may be that a little compassion is necessary, especially if it is a temporary situation. Maybe shifting essential work to others is called for, or changing something like work hours would help. I’ve also seen where therapy would be helpful, but the employee was not aware that the company offered that as part of their benefits.

A final situation, which I found to be the most common, is that the work the employee is doing is not what they like to do, or want to do for their long-term career. This can be brought on by several factors. Maybe the job advertised, and for which they were hired, was not accurately represented. It’s also that over time what was necessary for that position changed, so the nature of the work changed as well. Or, it could be that the employee’s likes and career goals have shifted, and the current work no longer fits well with what they want to be doing.

In this case you have what is probably a good employee that is not matched by the work. A square peg in a round hole. So, what can you do? They will probably be moving on anyway, so my suggestion is to help them move on. Preferably within the same employer filling another open position more aligned to their desires. As a previous CEO told me, “I’d rather they go down the hall than down the street.” That fills a company’s empty billet and allows you to hire someone who better fits the work. Your role in making this happen is to talk with the employee, and let them know you are aware of their situation and want to help. You can look within the company for that open position, and talk with that position’s hiring manager. You are trying to create a win-win situation. If you succeed the company and the employee will benefit, and your reputation as a leader will be burnished.

But what if there are no other positions within the company. What if you produce widgets and the employee knows that they want to be in the theatrical arts profession and there is absolutely no work for them in your company? Then, like the last situation, you need to recognize that you are going to eventually lose that employee. So, help them go! Let them know you are aware of their situation and want to help. You’ve probably seen many, many more resumes and cover letters than they, so offer to help with theirs. Let them know you are willing to be a reference for them. Your goal is to get them to land in a good position. Sometimes, just having this discussion gets them to move toward their desired job and away from their current job. That’s a good thing.


Disgruntled employees are a part of the working world. When it occurs:

  • Be a leader, not just a boss.
  • Talk with the employee and try to get to the root of the problem. You can’t solve what you don’t know about
  • Look for win-win solutions. They are out there, but they take work (on both party’s part). But that is what being a leader is all about.