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Trouble in the Workplace: Unhappy Employees

written by: Olivia Emisar•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 8/10/2011

When employees are unhappy, productivity and the company's reputation suffers. Some warning signs are more obvious than others, but once they become a pattern in combination with other habits, the manager needs to make changes to ensure the unhappiness does not become contagious and systemic.

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    Productivity Issues

    Is a particular employee's work habits changing? Or, has an employee who had an excellent track record of productivity become nothing more than a warm body taking up space? Some signs to look out for include:

    • Reluctance to finish projects.
    • Excuses for not meeting deadlines.
    • Refuses to collaborate with other team members to accomplish company goals.

    If there is only one employee with this issue, it is imperative to have a meeting and ascertain the issues causing this new pattern of behavior. The employee may have suffered a personal loss that he is not eager to discuss with others and may need some time off to take care of his personal life. The workplace may have become unusually stressful over time, due to excessive work responsibilities and an unmanageable workload.

    It is important to assess the situation and nip the problem in the bud, because if the employee is being harassed or intimidated, the company may open itself to a law suit for non-compliance of federal and state employment laws.

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    General Malaise

    Is the employee spreading ill will towards someone in particular of the company in general? Does everyone hear rumors about the company treating its employees like slaves? Are a selected few being favored with salary increases and sweet promotions?

    If the rumors are true, the manager needs to evaluate the intensity of the claims made and avoid a nepotistic work environment. While we all prefer some people's attitude and personalities more than others, those who have worked for the company longer should not be overlooked when it comes to promotions and salary increases.

    Some signs to look for include:

    • General dissatisfaction among co-workers.
    • Depression.
    • Lack of social engagement during down times.

    If the above mentioned warning signs seem to originate from the same person, it is time to put an end to it and have a productive conversation to clear the air. The employee may be correct in his perceptions and other co-workers may see it the same way, however, on occasion, people have an inflated opinion of their job performance and may suffer from low-self esteem that is unrelated to the work environment. Once again, it falls to the manager to resolve this situation in the most tactful way possible and avoid spreading the misery.

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    Formerly energetic and punctual employees may change their work habits in more noticeable ways by being passive-aggressive. Some signs to watch out for include:

    • Consistently arriving late to work and not bothering with explanations anymore.
    • Calling in sick excessively when everyone knows they are not.
    • Taking extra-long lunches.
    • Leaving work early frequently.

    While these habits are irritating to say the least, it is quite possible that the employee has become burnt-out with a workload that is too much for just one person. In these hard economic times, employees are doing more than one job and receiving meager salaries in comparison to their workload. If this is the case, it is understandable why the employee is taking time they feel belongs to them and this may be their only way to cope with workplace stress.

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    Productivity increases the bottom line and makes shareholders happy. Shareholders and CEOs may be far away from the trenches and the working class that makes the machine hum all the way to the bank, but the plant or department manager deals with the employees directly on a daily basis. It falls on him to understand the changes and rectify the situation to the best of his ability and with the resources provided by his higher-ups.

    Hurt feelings - Human beings are not machines and feelings get hurt in the workplace by callous comments from co-workers or lack of recognition from upper management. If the same person is left out from decision making sessions or event planning and treated as an outsider, negativity and unhappiness is sure to follow.

    Solution - Privately communicate with the employee and empower him to discuss solutions to put all this behind him. Enact the corrective actions by including the employee in meetings and demonstrating value for his opinions and solutions to problems. Reassess progress regularly through observation and communication.

    Feeling Used - This is a common problem in today's work place. It is not usual for employees to feel betrayed by a company they have dedicated the bulk of their waking hours as they see their family time and personal lives dwindling to practically nothing.

    Whether we like it or not, the company is responsible for the culture of the workplace and the low or high levels of morale in every department. Most employees are willing to go the extra mile to help out the company and save their jobs, but abusing their efforts by demanding higher expectations without an end in sight, is unsustainable and cruel.

    Solution - If the employee's perception is accurate, the employer must make every effort to alleviate the work load and start hiring more employees to equitably distribute the workload. If that is not possible, enact paid time off for the employee as a sign of recognition for their dedication.

    The ten warning signs of an unhappy employee listed here are some of the most common but others include blowing up, aggressive behavior and inappropriate language in a business environment. Treating the problems early on is the recommended course of action to avoid escalating the problem and continuing to maintain a peaceful and productive environment.


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