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TOUGH task Deal with disgruntled staff before problem spreads

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While many business leaders have that well-known graduate degree called the MBA (master of business administration), there aren't many leaders that I know of who have achieved the degree called the MPM (master of people management). In fact, it doesn't exist in any university programs that I've seen.

While some specialist university programs offer a strategic approach to people management, these programs typically focus on the theory and mechanics of human resource elements such as succession planning, organizational development, training, talent management, and/or recruitment and selection.

Rarely, if ever, do you see a program that is related to the front-line management of employee relations issues, especially how to deal with the tough issues such as disgruntled and unproductive employees, harassment and bullying and/or romance in the workplace. Yet at the same time, if these issues are not dealt with early and effectively, they can create a sense of havoc that disrupts the entire organization, no matter how big or small.

Managing a disgruntled employee is no small feat and requires logic, an unemotional analysis, strategy and patience. Let's start with identifying what a disgruntled employee looks like.

You can recognize a disgruntled employee by many elements of their behaviour. At the senior level, you will find people missing important meetings, resisting having to report the status of their projects and generally avoiding the normal sharing of information. These senior professionals are also often absent from their office, hold secret meetings outside their workplace and demonstrate resentment when asked to be accountable.

Disgruntled front-line workers are more easily identified as their spotty and erratic performance is more observable. Perhaps this worker is often late, isolates him/herself from previous friends in the workplace, demonstrates anger and irritability and sometimes lashes out at fellow workers for no reason.

Another challenging situation arises when disgruntled employees use their personal influence to cause discontent among other workers. They start rumours and may even take specific underhanded political steps to undermine senior leadership and/or attack any employee they feel is standing in the way. Their goal is to have their leader or a colleague who appears threatening to be fired, transferred and/or if possible forced to resign of their own accord.

Part of the challenge for the leader is that while you know you are dealing with an "elephant in the room," the situation is sometimes so subtle that in spite of the fact you can feel it, you cannot specifically define it. However, by this time, you should have received some complaints from others and/or noted the symptoms but you haven't taken action. And that's a big mistake. After all, your employees are feeling a lot of stress and strain because they can see what is going on but have no power to do anything about it.

Your first step as leader then is to logically identify the negative behaviours exhibited by your wayward employee. Determine if the issues might be due to a short-term issue such as an incident in the employee's personal life and/or if the issues are related to organizational systems or other undetermined causes. Look at the extent to which the behaviour is being exhibited as well as the impact and consequences on your staff and the organization. Next, examine the options for possible solutions. If an employee issue is more personal, then a brief leave of absence might simply be the answer.

However, in my consulting practice and as I have learned from personal experience, I find the most challenging employee issue to deal with is one where the employee is undermining their leader. In this case, an individual will attempt to erode the status quo by quietly discounting a leader's direction and/or begin discounting a targeted fellow colleague. This subversion is often carried out in a highly political and underhanded manner rather than in a thorough, open and honest confrontation that can be discussed and logically examined.

As a result, by the time the leader gets around to finally accepting that the employee behaviour is a real and damaging issue, it has typically been going on far too long. It more than likely also has become far too complex and many of your employees will now be involved in some way. The challenge for the leader is how to identify and confirm what the issues are and then determine how to deal with them.

The best means of identifying and confirming this type of issue is to conduct an external organization review. The specific objective of a review of this nature is to identify the extent and depth of the issues, who appears to be leading the charge, who all is involved and to what extent. The review also identifies and confirms the impact of the issue on employee morale, personal safety and well-being, employee productivity, stress, trust and the overall corporate culture. The organizational review is conducted by an objective third party and consists of a series of one-to-one interviews, focus groups and document review. The result will be a number of recommendations on how to deal with the situation.

My experience suggests that one of the most difficult issues to deal with is when a senior level manager is identified as the truly disgruntled employee. This person has been undermining your leadership for some time. This situation is very difficult to overcome because these individuals are very good at appearing to toe the line even when they don't. They simply go underground and continue to subvert in other ways until they voluntarily leave the organization and/or are terminated for cause.

While many leaders find having to terminate an employee distasteful, it is often the only way in which to clear the decks and get your organization back into a level of high productivity. Think of this strategy from a different point of view; it is nothing more than helping an individual move on with their career. Obviously, the individual is not happy working for you or your organization but won't take responsibility for their attitude or their career. As well, let's face it, you have probably exhausted yourself trying to overcome the situation.

While creating a harmonious workplace is a leader's responsibility, it is also a two-way street. In other words, if an employee isn't willing to take their part in creating a positive work environment, then as leader, you need to step in and make the decision. It's too bad that most leaders are not trained in dealing with those real, front-line employee issues; however, gaining skill as a "master of people management" can be attained through a combination of personal experience accompanied by expert advice.

Source: The disgruntled employee: Manage challenging staff without losing your mind, author -- Peter Morris; publisher Adams Business, 2008.

Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group and vice-president of Waterhouse Executive Search. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 22, 2011 I1

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