Malcontent and Disgruntled Employees ... What's a Supervisor to Do?
The Police Chief Magazine
John (Jack) J. Harris, M.Ed.
Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D.
In law enforcement agencies across the country, it is not hard to find malcontent and disgruntled employees who were once highly motivated and productive people. These employees spend more time trying to undermine and sabotage administrative direction and supervision rather than just doing the job they are asked to do. From their perspective, the fun has gone out of the job and they start to think ahead to retirement (vowing not to let the door hit them on their way out), even though retirement is still five to ten years away. In the meantime, first-line as well as mid and executive-level managers who are unprepared to deal with these employees and the problems they create can look forward to spending an inordinate amount of time trying to supervise and hold these employees accountable. Although these people represent only a small percentage of an organization’s personnel, they demand the largest amount of supervisory time.
For more than 15 years, the authors have interviewed supervisors and have presented seminars on this subject to over 150,000 federal, state and local law enforcement supervisors (from first-line to executive level) from across the country. These supervisors have produced an amazingly consistent description of the disgruntled employee and they report that these employees cause the greatest amount of turmoil over the longest period of time. Supervisors also describe a feeling of helpless and an inability to effectively deal with these employees. They cite things like lack of administrative support, civil service, arbitrators and other review boards, lack of prior documentation, unions and labor organizations, the amount of time it takes, fear of reprisal, it's easier just to tolerate the problem until the employee transfers and "I don't know how" as some of the reasons that it is difficult to deal with these employees.
Unfortunately, there is an almost helpless acceptance that malcontent and disgruntled employees have to be tolerated within an organization . . . like other unavoidable hardships. Although supervisors are often quick to blame "the system" for their inability to address the problems, further discussion reveals in a more accurate picture. Lack of and/or inaccurate documentation coupled with not holding employees accountable from the beginning, creates a personnel file that erroneously portrays the disgruntled employee as performing at acceptable levels or above. This allows problems to continue and get worse, gives tacit approval for inappropriate behavior and performance and opens the door for employee claims of a "personality conflict," unfair treatment, discrimination and a whole host of other allegations. It is these failures, and not the system, that often gives attorneys and labor organizations more than enough ammunition to successfully defend these employees at appeals, in arbitration and in the courts.
While it is convenient to point the finger at first-line supervisors, these failures can usually be found at all levels throughout the organization. To have any hope of dealing with malcontent and disgruntled employees more effectively, mid and executive-level mangers have to become an integral part of the solution. They do not have the luxury of simply pointing fingers and blaming first-line supervisors . . . they have to demonstrate courage, lead by example, give clear direction, provide meaningful training, be mentors, hold people accountable and support supervisors who are willing to address inappropriate behavior and performance. When mid and executive-level managers fail to do their part, supervisors often become frustrated and ask, "What's the use in trying?" Malcontent and disgruntled employees are quick to see just how powerless supervisors can become. When first-line supervisors fail to do their part, mid and executive-level mangers are virtually powerless to address these problems.
Malcontent and disgruntled employees are not simply the result of supervisory failures. The typical hiring and screening processes are designed to and do in fact help select good candidates. However, once hired, organizations rarely pay any attention to its employees' "Emotional Survival™" nor do they address the issue of, "Keeping Good People Good™." When organizations do a good job of selecting and a poor job or maintaining employees, they can expect to see some of their hard-working, dedicated and productive employees become angry, cynical malcontents.
Through years of practical experience and thousands of interviews with exemplary employees, malcontent and disgruntled employees and mangers at all levels, one thing seems very clear . . . malcontent and disgruntled employees are typically more experienced at being malcontent and disgruntled than supervisors (especially new ones) at holding them accountable. For this to change, more information and insight alone is not enough . . . supervisors and managers need practical skills that they can apply to real-life situations. With practical skills, supervisors can develop "the courage to confront" which is essential if supervisors hope to become more effective and confident when dealing with malcontent and disgruntled employees. However, the most important time to use these skills is before problems begin to develop or at the earliest signs of trouble. Supervisors have a choice, "pay now or pay later" . . . the amount of time they spend preventing and dealing with problems early on is almost always insignificant compared to the time required to deal with problems, and their aftermath, after they have gotten out of control. Headlines are filled with many examples of inappropriate behavior and supervisory failures that occur in law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
The "Courage to Confront" and the willingness and ability to communicate, give verbal and written feedback, follow up, and hold employees accountable coupled with a viable operational plan are keys to effective supervision. While the value of an operational plan is well understood in many situations such as, SWAT, Hostage, high-risk stops, pursuit driving, etc., its value as a supervisory tool is yet to be fully realized. While supervisors attend classes, study textbooks and get "on the job training" most agree that is not enough . . . they need practical skills to do their job effectively. Supervisory training programs typically emphasize the theoretical aspects and ignore skill development and the proficiency needed to do the job well.
For the remainder of this article, the authors will discuss a strategy that (if used) will help supervisors deal with malcontent and disgruntled employees more effectively and with greater confidence. This strategy can be used effectively in actual work situations, ranging from the most simple to the most complex. It can be integrated into each supervisor's personal style of management and can work within any organizations' policies, procedures and regulations.
Before Meeting With the Employee
One of the keys to an effective operational plan is to having it in place before the event occurs. With the very best of intentions, supervisors often jump right into a discussion with an employee only to find them that they were not as nearly prepared as they thought they were. Before meeting with an employee supervisors will find it to their advantage to slow down and take the time to "get their own ducks in line." To do this well, supervisors will want to consider several things.
First and foremost, the supervisor has to identify the problem in clear, specific and objective terms. This is often more difficult that it appears to be because it is usually easier to talk about how we feel about problems or describe them in general, non-specific terms. Terms such as poor attitude, unprofessional, arrogant, rude, not being a team player, poor officer safety, etc., are not descriptions at all . . .rather, they describe how we feel about the real problem. Trying to talk to an employee about poorly defined problems sets the stage for misunderstandings, conflicts, arguments, increased frustration (from both the supervisory and the employee) and non-productive discussions. Until the problem can be clearly defined, it is a waste to time trying to find solutions. When this step is not done well or is ignored, supervisors spend a lot of time trying to implement solutions for problems they do not fully understand and meaningful change is unlikely to occur. If supervisors cannot define the problem in clear, specific terms it is unlikely that the employee will know what he/she needs to do to fix the problem or improve their performance. Words such as poor attitude, unprofessional, not a team player, etc. can be a supervisor's worst enemy with trying to explain what they really meant to an appeals board or a court.
Supervisors must learn to separate their personal feelings and issues from job performance and behaviors. When supervisors do not define problems in clear, specific, objective terms it becomes more difficult to separate business from personal issues. Entwining business and personal issues leads to heated discussions and disagreements that complicate, rather than solve, problems and hinders a supervisor's ability to get their point across to the employee. Supervisors who describe problems in clear, specific, objective terms are better able to focus on the facts and real issues, and will help them separate personal feelings from business concerns.
Supervisors are responsible for gathering the facts, completing a thorough, objective review and basing their decisions and recommendations on the facts. After the facts are gathered, the supervisor can determine the impact, severity and potential of the problem and what needs to be done. Since it is impossible for supervisors to devote equal time to all issues and problems, they must have the facts before deciding how much time to devote to this matter.
At this point, supervisors are ready to examine their options . . . that is, consider the different ways that it might be appropriate to address this issue. They need consider a wide range of options, ranging from things like coaching, retraining, verbal warnings, counseling to disciplinary action. After considering their options, supervisors must determine what they are willing and able to do if the problem continues. It is up to the supervisor to decide what he/she is willing to do what they say they will do. However, they will usually have to rely on other people, such as legal advisors, human resource managers or mangers up their chain-of-command to find out what they are able to do. It is pointless for supervisors to threaten any type of action if they are either unwilling or unable to carry out the action in question. Using such tactics as a "bluff" or a means to get the employee's attention is guaranteed to backfire and exacerbate the problem rather than help to solve it. Before a supervisor meets with the employee, he/she must be clear about what they are willing and able to do. Failure to do this can lead to making "threats or promises" that supervisors either will not or cannot carry out. Ironically, employees (especially the malcontent and disgruntled ones) often know immediately if supervisors are willing and able to do the things they say.
Meeting with the Employee
Up to this point the process has been relatively painless because it is all done without talking to the employee. But now, the operational plan is complete and it is time for the supervisor to sit down with the employee and have a face-to-face discussion. This is where the "rubber meets the road" and where supervisors report a tremendous amount of discomfort. In many cases, supervisors avoid these discussions unless there is no alternative. Supervising friends, wanting to be liked and accepted, unfamiliarity with the new role, not wanting to be the bearer of bad news, supervising people who have more time with the organization, dealing with people who think they (not you) should have been promoted, trying to be fair to employees, the agency & yourself are some of the most common reasons cited to making this supervisory/employee discussions so uncomfortable. While nothing will completely eliminate this discomfort, a well thought out operational plan is the first step. That coupled with increased skills and practice will significantly reduce the discomfort.
The goal of every discussion should be to give employees information they need in order to understand what they are doing well, make better decisions, improve performance or correct problems and ensure mutual understanding between the supervisor and the employee. While the supervisor is responsible for making sure that the employee understands what the problem is, what he/she is expected to do differently and what the consequences will be if the problem continues, the employee is ultimately responsible for making the required change or face the consequences.
One of the biggest challenges that a supervisor faces during this step is to not allow their personal feelings, side issues and emotions to get the discussion off track. The more prepared the supervisor is the easier it is to stay focused, not get caught in traps and avoid side issues.
A template to help supervisors keep the discussion on track would include the following steps . . . Start by describing the problem in clear, specific and objective terms. Then, ask for the employee's side of the story. It is imperative to get the employee's side before continuing because, at this point, the employee's perspective is missing. Once the employee offers an explanation, the supervisor can consider it before moving forward. Remember that a good operational plan has to be flexible enough to take into account last minute or changing information when it is appropriate to do so. From here, the supervisor has to make it clear what the employee is expected to do differently and articulate his/her expectations in clear, specific terms. The supervisor then describes the consequences or disciplinary action that will occur if the problem continues, again in clear, specific terms. Finally, the supervisor must ensure that the employee has a clear understanding of the problem, what is expected and what will happen if the problem continues. When supervisors fail to do this, mutual understanding can be compromised and employees now have the opportunity to claim (somewhere down the road), "I didn't know that is what you meant."
The discussion phase is where practical skill development, training and practice offers the greatest rewards. As with any skill driven activity, success is not determined by how well one can pass a test of regurgitate the material. The real test is how well a person can apply the principals to real-life situations. It is through skill development, practice and more practice (not increased understanding or reading more books) where supervisors become more effective and confident when dealing with all employees, especially malcontent and disgruntled ones. Skill based training is the key to helping supervisors stay on track and avoid the traps that will surface during meetings with employees. Some employees are masters at diverting the focus of the conversation to other employees, projecting blame on others, making accusations against other people, verbally attacking the supervisor, or otherwise getting the supervisor off track. Without these skills, malcontent and disgruntled employees will continue to have the upper hand and remain more experienced at being malcontent and disgruntled than their supervisors are at dealing with them.
After Meeting with the Employee
After the discussion is over, supervisors must thoroughly document what took place (whether in a formal report, a supervisory note, employee evaluation, letter of instruction, improvement plan, an entry in the employee's file, etc.). The documentation should be done in a timely manner and must focus on objective observations about job performance and job-related behaviors, rather than personal commentary about motivation, perceptions and other subjective matters. Good documentation is clear, specific and objective and is written to the ultimate reader, that is someone who is unfamiliar or vaguely familiar with the organization and has no prior knowledge of the problems that are being addressed. Well written documentation will leave the ultimate reader (arbitrator, judge, appeals board, etc), with a clear understanding of the issues and problems, what the supervisor and organization have tried to do help the employee, what the employees response or lack or response was and the basis for the recommendations.
Without proper documentation, supervisors will find themselves starting all over again every time a problem resurfaces or a new problem arises. More importantly, lack of documentation is one of the major reasons appeal boards, arbitrators and the courts throughout the country have overturned disciplinary actions. Inadequate documentation has been a nightmare to more than one organization when it came to defending discrimination, EEO and other labor law related suits and it is becoming a significant issue when defending failure to supervise, negligent supervision and other related civil suits. On too many occasions, otherwise competent supervisors and mangers have had to endure the agony of being crossed examined by an attorney who repeatedly uses their own documentation to impeach their testimony. As one attorney said to each of the three supervisors and managers that he was cross cross-examining one day, "Based on the discrepancies between your testimony today and your previous documentation, we know that you have lied. My only question now is "Are you lying today in court or did you lie when you wrote the documentation?" Labor organizations and attorneys alike will often point to the lack of or inadequate documentation as the strongest part of their case. And finally, fairness and progressive discipline requires having documentation that addresses problems right from the beginning.
Regardless of how well things have been done so far, it becomes a waste of time when supervisors fail to follow-up and follow-through. Follow-up means checking to see if the employee is doing as he/she has been instructed. Follow-though means supervisors doing what they said they would do if the problems continued. Simply put, supervisors' actions always speak louder than their words. While employees listen to what supervisors say, they pay much more attention to what supervisors do . . . and quickly figure out whether they really mean what they say or simply just talk a good game. Supervisors who do not follow-up and follow-through are a big part of the problem! Not following-though virtually ensures that the employee will continue to engage in unacceptable behaviors and will undermine the supervisor's future attempts to deal with the problem.
Following-through can be very uncomfortable because of camaraderie, friendships, believing it is easier just to give another warning, or hoping that the problem will just go away. At the same time, supervisors become very frustrated when the problems continue or get worse. Supervisors who are reluctant to take immediate action usually act only when they have "had enough" or can not longer "put it off." Putting it off allows frustrations to grow, and often leads to verbally explosive confrontations. When this occurs if becomes very difficult to separate personal emotions from job-related issues. Supervisors who avoid problems and hope they will just go away are only fooling themselves . . . ignoring problems simply postpones the inevitable and makes the problems much more difficult to deal with.
The time spent dealing with problems in the early stages is relatively insignificant compared to the countless number of hours spent dealing with escalating problems over and over again during an employee's career. While supervisors often express concern about the amount of time it would take to deal with these employees, they are generally agree that if someone had taken the time when a problem first surfaced, many of the long-term problems could have been prevented or dealt with more effectively long ago. Supervisors can often point to employees whose careers might have been saved had they not been allowed to drift so far afield. While this does take time, the real question is, "If we take the time to do the job well now, how much time and how many careers could be saved?"
What Can Be Done
If an organization really wants to do something about malcontent and disgruntled employees, it needs a multifaceted approach. While organizations must continue their efforts to select and hire good people, they must also make an effort to help maintain the people after they are hired. While each person is ultimately responsible for whether or not she/he becomes malcontent and disgruntled, they need some help. They need information and skills to help them become "Emotional Survivors" rather than burned out, malcontent and disgruntled people. "Keeping Good People Good" should become a priority of every organization. First-line supervisors have to demonstrate the "Courage to Confront" and must be willing and able to hold people accountable. Mid and executive-level managers have to demonstrate courage, lead by example, give clear direction, provide meaningful training, be mentors, hold people accountable and support supervisors who are willing to address inappropriate behavior and performance.
Organizations do not have to sit helplessness and accept or tolerate malcontent and disgruntled employees. There are things that can be done to make a difference, but it takes a genuine effort and a lot of work. The question remains, "Pay now or pay later?" . . . the choice is yours.