How to pick up if your employees are unhappy, and how to react… 

Your employees are unlikely to tell you if they are unhappy. These conversations are seen as a surefire way to darken one’s career prospects, and most work environments don’t lend themselves to these types of conversations anyway. But unhappy employees will make themselves known; mostly through their out-of-character behaviour: 


Reduction in work output can be hard to measure, but it’s not that difficult to notice. Unhappy employees tend to procrastinate over decisions and struggle to work methodically through tasks that would normally be a breeze. 

Assuming that you have performance standards in place, you should confront this poor performance quickly, and try to get to the bottom of the reasons for non-performance. 

Performance discussions go well when you focus on the issues. But you also need to think carefully about how you raise each issue and then solve them. Here are a few pointers: 

  • Do you talk rather than listen? Do you assume the facts rather than interrogate them?
  • Are you genuinely interested in the reasons why performance is not being achieved?
  • Do you determine the solutions rather than explore them with employees?
  • Do you tell rather than ask? Do you condemn rather than encourage?
  • Do you provide specific and clear guidelines and standards for your staff?
  • Are these applied consistently and fairly? 

Poor performance is just one indicator of an unhappy employee, there are others: 


Keep an eye on absenteeism statistics, particularly if they start going up. When employees are unhappy it often translates into ad hoc sick days for minor ailments. These days may not necessarily tie in with Fridays and Mondays (which is more typical in sick leave abuse situations) but could be related to days when deadlines are expected or important meetings are scheduled. This type of absence could also be stress-related. 

If employees ask for sporadic annual leave or days off, consider if there are other reasons for these requests. Are they struggling due to unusually heavy workloads? Stress can impact sleep patterns, eating habits, cause fluctuations in weight, or cause employees to lose interest in sport or other regular activities. 

Employees may, of course, be using their ad hoc days off to go on job interviews. 


Do you have employees that come in late but leave on time? Have they always done this or is it something new? 

Do they take long and frequent smoke and lunch breaks? 

Acknowledge these indicators and deal with them quickly by telling your employee what you have observed. Usually-consistent performers may also start performing poorly if they feel that their efforts aren’t being acknowledged, if they are overlooked for a promotion or other career opportunity, or if they have been putting in extra hours and believe that this has gone unnoticed. 


When senior staff, or employees who usually contribute without looking for monetary reward start asking for it, it could be a sign that they are unhappy. Or it could be a sign that something else is happening in their private lives. Try find out what is really bothering them. 


Some people start to withdraw from work colleagues when they are unhappy. Their usual open-door policy is replaced with a “do not disturb” approach as they withdraw into their own worlds. If a staff member’s social behaviour shifts or they no longer interact with other staff as they used to, it could be a warning sign that something is wrong. 

Dissatisfaction can also play itself out in other interactions. Is the employee being unusually impatient, argumentative or irritable? Do they talk with arms folded, refuse to make eye contact, offer short or curt responses to your questions or treat others with the silent treatment? 


Some people act as if grumpiness is a job requirement. But if a formerly happy employee changes, it may be time to investigate. You may not pick the behaviour up immediately, but if others bring it to your attention, you should act. Negative behaviour is seldom overlooked by work colleagues; and in most cases, they will readily share what is irritating them about that employee. 


Has an employee suddenly started copying everyone in on their emails? Could their behaviour be prompted by distrust? When relationships deteriorate employees could start to vent their frustration – through emails or other ways. This could even extend to social media outlets such as Facebook or Twitter or frankly any avenue that gives them a voice. But once anger or hurt is put in writing or posted on the internet; there is not taking it back. 


Dejected employees sometimes resort to more drastic action such as a lack of regard for company property. Most of these behaviours need to be addressed by disciplinary action, but you must consider if there are underlying issues that have not been addressed by management and signal a bigger problem within the company. 


Few people embrace change well. A downturn in the economy, the loss of major clients or the inability to secure contracts all lead to uneasiness and uncertainty in the workplace. These scenarios naturally cause employees to consider the possibility of job losses; loss of benefits; loss of friendships and fear of the future. 


Rob Rankin – Co-owner of (Your Business)