How to deal with angry employees

Written by: the Officevibe Content Team
Published on March 30, 2015 | Reading time: 11m

Dealing with angry employees can be difficult, but it’s incredibly important that you handle the situation effectively and calmly.

Your angriest employees can be a real burden to the rest of your team and the entire company culture. Their negative attitude can not only affect the morale of other employees, but it can affect the success of the business if they start to slack on their work.

When an angry employee wants to (negatively) express themselves, it’s during these moments when great leaders shine. The way leaders handle these situations separate the great from the mediocre.

Here’s an Overview on How to Deal with an Angry Employee

  • Thank them for their feedback (if they approached you)
  • Don’t give up on employees
  • Show compassion and fix the situation
  • Don’t play favorites
  • Let employees vent
  • Dig Deeper To Find The Real Issue
  • Empower Your Employees
  • Apply the H.E.A.R.D approach

As a leader, you should care about the well-being of your employees, and should do everything in your power to make sure that employees are happy and well taken care of.

In one of my most popular posts, I discussed a concept called the service-profit chain. The service-profit chain is the link between employee engagement and profits. One of the key parts of the service-profit chain is that happy employees lead to happy customers, which in turn lead to loyal customers.

I’ll go into much more detail about this later in the post, but many of the lessons that customer service learns to deal with angry customers can be applied when trying to deal with angry employees.

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

Bill Gates

The feedback that you can get from angry employees if you’re really listening (and I mean really listening) can be priceless.

There is an energy that surrounds angry employees, and they affect everything (and everyone) around them. Now more than ever, with the proliferation of social media and openness on the internet, angry employees can do incredible amounts of damage to your brand.

One of the most famous examples was last year when HMV was firing a bunch of their staff, and whoever was managing their Twitter account was live-tweeting the whole thing, with the first tweet reading “We’re tweeting live from HR where we’re all being fired! Exciting!!”

angry employees on twitter

Or this example of an angry ex-employee of Whole Foods that showed how untrue their core values really are. This post went semi-viral, with 17,000 Facebook likes and almost 500 comments.

There is a lot to be said about being authentic and truthful, and doing your best to avoid angry employees. People leave companies all the time and having some form of turnover is actually good for a company, but it’s important that any departure is always on good terms.

Even at our parent company, GSOFT, people have left (I’ll never understand why) to pursue personal projects, but we have such an amazing culture and close family connection, that there are never any hard feelings.

Let’s look at a few other ways that angry employees can affect your brand:

  • Upset clients and miss deadlines
  • Leak sensitive company information
  • Deter potential hires from joining
  • Make people around them disengaged from their work
  • Steal company property

Dealing with angry employees

Let’s look at a few ways that you can deal with angry employees. The most important thing is to be genuine, caring, and authentic. People are able to tell if you’re being real or fake with them, and even if you don’t necessarily change anything, the fact that you truly show that you care is often good enough. Remember, sometimes perception is reality.

Following this list of things should help you to deal with your angriest employees. Like I mentioned earlier, ideally, this doesn’t come up, and you’ve worked hard to create an authentic company culture, based on openness and transparency, and you work hard to make your employees happy all the time.

In most companies this isn’t necessarily the case, and there are angry employees that are disengaged, costing your tons of money in lost productivity.

Thank them for their feedback

Think about the level of courage it took for an employee to raise their concerns to you. Most employees are scared to speak their minds, so the fact that they’ve approached you and gave you valuable feedback (as hard as it might be to hear) thank them for it.

It’s important that those feelings don’t stay bottled up inside, it can have a major effect on your stress levels.

Dont give up on employees

Research by Zenger/Folkman shows that managers give up on their employees way too easily. This is a huge mistake, and managers are potentially missing out on huge opportunities to re-engage their angry employees.

Show compassion and fix the situation

In a study of 194 people who said they had witnessed an incident of anger at work, the researchers found no connection between firing an irate employee and solving underlying workplace problems. The researchers also found that even a single act of support by a manager or co-worker towards the angered employee can improve workplace tension.

Managers who recognize their potential role in angering an employee “may be motivated to respond more compassionately to help restore a favorable working relationship,” the researchers wrote in the journal of Human Relations.

Don’t play favorites

In the research by Zenger/Folkman that I mentioned earlier, they identified the behaviors of leaders where they saw the angriest employees.

Their results were clear: there is most definitely such a thing as “the boss’s favorites.” Not all employees are treated equally, and in the cases where inequities occur, employees are clearly vocal about what their bosses need to do to improve. Things like better coaching, mentoring and feedback were all things that employees were looking for.

Let employees vent

I’m a big believer in using emotional intelligence to lead your employees. When employees are angry, they’re going to need to vent, it’s normal. As a smart leader, you need to give them that opportunity and let them vent. Show empathy, and listen attentively to them.

Dig deeper to find the real issue

A classic customer service technique that you can easily apply to help deal with angry employees is what’s known as Socratic questioning. Most of the time, when employees are angry about something, there are deeper underlying issues that can help you uncover the true problems in your company.

Asking questions to dig deeper, like “what do you mean by that? or “can you explain that a bit more?” will help employees explain their frustrations better.

Empower your employees

Here’s a story about two companies, in the same industry. One of them completely gets it right, and has an incredible company culture (award winning), and let’s just say the other doesn’t have the same reputation.

In 2009, a Verizon Wireless customer’s dad died, and the company continued to charge the account. The employees weren’t empowered to make things right and find ways to help their customers, so they kept having to refuse to do anything.

A back and forth between the daughter and Verizon went on for four months, and they even made the daughter send in his death certificate. Finally, they stopped charging the account after the press had (rightfully) ripped them apart.

Telus, on the other hand, empowers their employees to do what’s best for their customers. I spoke with Dan Pontefract, Telus’s Chief Envisionist about the culture there, and at one point in our conversation I mentioned how call centers are notoriously bad when it comes to employee happiness, and what his thoughts were on Telus’s call center. He said:

“Often what I hear, anecdotally, is that certain call centers may not have that type of trust or empowerment to allow the team member to actually address what may be the issue at hand, for those that might have a problem in their home, in their cell phone or whatever the case may be. Over here, because of the TELUS leadership philosophy, our values, our attributes, our fair process, our belief in the customer, and, thus, our belief in the team member to address a customer’s issue … you know, we’re not interested in call handle times. If it takes a long time to handle a problem, well, guess what.Our people are empowered to do so. And they’re empowered to fix it in the right way where they might actually have to do something that they might not have done before, and that’s okay because we trust our people to do what’s right to put our customers first.”

You can watch our full conversation here:

Learning from customer service

Having worked in customer service before, there are a lot of elements that leaders can learn from dealing with angry customers in how to deal with angry employees.

Many customer service departments have acronyms for how to handle their support, Apple’s is A-P-P-L-E, which stands for Approach, Probe, Present, Listen, End. There are many examples like this, but the one I want to talk about is from the Walt Disney company.

The way that they approach their customer service is with the acronym H.E.A.R.D:

  • Hear
  • Empathize
  • Apologize
  • Resolve
  • Diagnose

1. Hear

Like I mentioned earlier, naturally, one of the first things an angry employee will want to do is vent. Listen to them without interruption, and make sure you’re listening attentively.

2. Empathize

Empathy is one of the most powerful skills to have that will make you a better leader. You can say things like “I’d be angry too if that happened to me”, or “I can see why that would make you upset.”

3. Apologize

Make sure to apologize even if it wasn’t directly your fault. A sincere apology can really go a long way. Research shows that receiving an apology has a noticeable, positive physical effect on the body. An apology actually affects the bodily functions of the person receiving it, blood pressure decreases, heart rate slows and breathing becomes steadier.

4. Resolve

Try and resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Showing them that you care enough to make an effort to resolve the situation will help make the employee less angry.

5) Diagnose

In the software development world we often do what’s known as a post-mortem. Before rushing to the next project, we take some time to look back at the previous project, what mistakes were made, what could have gone better in order to not let it happen again.

Similarly, when you’ve resolved the issue with your employee, diagnose what went wrong (without blaming anyone), and see how you can make sure no employee experiences what they went through.

The lasting effects of stress

One of the biggest reasons why you should care about having happy employees, is that when they’re angry, they’ll be more stressed about life in general.

Most of us know that stress is bad for us, but I don’t think people understand how bad it is. Near the end of World War II the allied forces were moving the German army out of the Netherlands. As the Nazi’s retreated, they destroyed bridges, flooded the farmland, and set up blockades to cut off shipments of food.

This became known as the Dutch Hunger Winter, one of the worst famines in history.

In the 1990s, a researcher from the University of Amsterdam started looking at the data from the children born during the Dutch Hunger Winter, and was able to track many of them throughout their lives. What she discovered, was that children who were conceived during the Dutch Hunger Winter had higher risk of heart disease, higher rates of obesity, lower likelihood of being employed, and increased risk of high blood pressure as an adult.

Think about that for a second, children who weren’t even born yet during the Dutch Hunger Winter have worse health 60 years later.

This research is incredible because it shows how big of an impact stress has on us. Not only do the effects of stress impact us at the time they happen, they can have effects on us and our children for decades.

As leaders, understanding this can help us empathize with employees and have compassion towards their well-being. Knowing this, we should be doing everything in our power to make sure employees are happy and stress-free.

Turning angry employees into happy employees

This is why measuring employee happiness consistently is so important. If you constantly have a pulse of your employees you can prevent things like this from ever becoming an issue. As soon as you start to see something slipping, you can react, and make sure they’re happy again.

Happy employees lead to happy customers, which leads to more money for your business. If you have an angry employee, the number one thing you need to do is be honest and genuine with them, and help them fix whatever is bothering them.

If whatever is bothering them is out of your control, then be honest about that. Let employees know that your hands are tied, but see what else you can do to make them happier.

How have you dealt with angry employees?

Let us know your thoughts on Twitter @Officevibe.