Combatting Employee Dissatisfaction

Honesty is the best policy, along with listening to and addressing issues quickly and fairly.

It doesn’t take much to sow dissent in an organization. One influential voice can be enough to ruin the morale of many employees—or even all employees. At a company I used to work for, an employee who had been laid off distributed a cartoon mocking the company. She stopped at everyone’s cubicle, giving each employee a copy of the cartoon. Most of us already agreed with the sentiment, but the cartoon brought to the front of our minds the dissatisfaction most of us had pushed to the back.

Companies spend ample resources to maintain a positive public image, but usually devote far fewer resources, if any, to their internal image. Your employees are the ones you depend on to serve your customers or clients. If they are dissatisfied, you have two problems. The first is service to customers will decline. The second is employees will become negative brand ambassadors, letting friends and family—and maybe the public at large—know they do not like working for your organization. Your ability to recruit new employees could be affected, and people may be dissuaded from becoming your customers. Many sensitive people are reluctant to do business with a company known to treat its workforce poorly.

In addition to making it less likely people will want to be associated with your company—either as new employees or new customers—dissatisfied employees who express their displeasure with you are waging a negative internal public relations campaign. Employees who had always been happy, high performers may become convinced by the experience of this dissatisfied employee, and others recruited to the cause, that working for you is not actually as good as they thought.

An article in Inc. gives guidance on how to limit damage by a disgruntled employee, so they don’t take a corporate family squabble public, tarnishing your reputation: “Show employees that you care. You don’t want them to feel they can’t raise legitimate concerns, and you don’t want it to appear you’re trying to silence everyone and rule with an iron fist. Bare minimum, provide employees with correct information. They’ll talk to family and friends—conversations that may eventually leak out to other stakeholders and the media.”

The first rule of doing what the article advises should be honesty. In the case of my former employer, the layoff of the employee distributing the cartoon, and of others, contradicted what executives had told us. One executive, for instance, told us when he came aboard that he thought there had been enough layoffs, and that he wanted to “stop the bleeding.” My friends and I came to call this executive “Ice Man” because there was something about him that reminded us of a comic book character who might have such a name. He was a caricature of coldness. Our intuition about him proved prescient. So we were not too disillusioned when the layoffs continued despite his reassurance. Many others outside our circle, however, may have believed him, and felt betrayed.

To avoid the dissatisfaction in the first place, honesty is best. If something damaging to employees needs to happen, honesty won’t solve the problem, but it will minimize the negative impact. For example, if unanticipated layoffs need to happen, an executive can meet with employees and explain what is happening and why it’s happening. It’s important in these meetings to leave time at the end for questions and for a general gripe session. It may seem like a smart thing to close a meeting after the question-and-answer session, but if you don’t leave time for griping, it will occur after employees leave the meeting, in public forums such as on their social media feeds.

In fact, to diffuse the anger and give employees an opportunity to safely vent inside your walls, you may even want to ask questions, or make comments, to bring the dissatisfaction and anger into the open: “How do you feel about this? I can understand if you feel angry. I wouldn’t blame you,” the executive might say candidly. The executive then could share an episode from their work life when unexpected layoffs occurred, offering a description of how they felt and how they dealt with it.

You can’t be a perfect employer, but you can be an honest one who encourages open discussion with employees when situations adversely affecting them occur. Better to hear directly from employees that they are upset with you then have them announce it on Facebook, Twitter—or with an unflattering photo—or cartoon—about your company shared to Instagram.

How do you manage internal dissatisfaction? How do you stop it from adversely impacting the morale of the whole workforce, and from spilling out into public forums?