How to Manage a Disgruntled Employee

Last Updated Sep 12, 2011 9:17 PM EDT

In a recent post, I cited a survey from the Corporate Executive Board that showed that 75% of people who leave their jobs are disgruntled when they do so. Given that recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that, in fact, record numbers of people are leaving their jobs, that's a lot of unhappy, grumpy people.

Not that I necessarily blame them. But what happens when one of your people-maybe even an employee that you've tried hard to keep happy- leaves on a sour note? Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Rosabeth Moss Kanter gives a list of nine "Do's" and "Don't's" for dealing with disgruntled former employees, sales pros, or even partnerships gone bad. Her focus is on protecting the corporate reputation, but some of her advice may be helpful in more personal disputes, too. Specifically:
  1. Keep telling the positive story of your group's accomplishments. Don't give the disgruntled person free air time by repeating their complaints. If you think he or she have a valid point, then of course there may be value in flagging that concerns to higher-ups within your company. But there's no point in spreading complaints to the world at large.
  2. Don't retaliate. Stick to the higher ground, even if the other person is spreading nasty gossip. It's way too easy for you to come off sounding defensive, and Kanter says that recent research shows that spreading negative gossip makes the teller-not the target of the gossip-look bad.
  3. You're right? That isn't enough. This goes to the second point, above. Simply being right is not going to convince anyone. It's your actions that matter, so especially under stress, you've got to act in accordance with the highest principles. (Like you always do, right?)
  4. Maybe you're wrong. Few situations are black-and-white. If you've done something wrong, admit it. Make a concession. Make it clear that you're not going to be walked over, but don't be the person who refuses to even have a phone call with their adversary.
  5. Respond to rumors right away. And make sure your allies have all the information they need to be persuasive on your behalf.
  6. Keep moving forward. Don't get bogged down in petty politics. Give people something else to talk about--like how well you and your team are doing despite the fact that you've got an opening to fill.
Disgruntled--but maybe they have a point
There's another side to all of this, of course, and I'd be interested to hear about any recent research on the topic. Quite often, disgruntled people are unhappy for a darn good reason. Often, it's because managers are blind to what's going on within their own teams.

If that's the case, this advice might make for good damage control, while missing a larger point. Maybe this grumpy person has something valuable to teach everyone. Maybe he or she knows something the rest of the team doesn't. Given that so few people tell the whole truth in exit interviews, what's the best way to learn from a cranky co-worker-even after they're out the door?

RELATED Image courtesy of flickr user Harshit Sekhon
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www. twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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