How to Deal with an Angry Employee

It takes all kinds of people to work together to make a team perform at its best. Unfortunately, at times some of these people can be disgruntled, discouraged or overtly upset employees– either with you as the boss or with the company. It can take just a few people or at times even just one upset employee to derail a project or cause upheaval in your workplace. Hence, having a method of handling frustrations and a process for dealing with irate employees is essential for ensuring your workplace productivity and morale.

Recognizing Signs and Behavior
People who are upset can act out in a variety of ways. Some might come into your office and yell and curse, while others adopt a passive-aggressive stance and don’t admit they are upset, but are not productive. Others can turn the anger or frustration internally and become depressed and function at a lower rate. As a leader, it’s important both to recognize the signs of an employee’s increasing anger and frustration as well as the subsequent behaviors he or she will exhibit and to know how to deal with that individual effectively. Telling someone who is yelling at you to “just calm down” for example, isn’t going to work very well.

Reasons for Anger in Employees
Why do employees get angry in the first place? Let’s first uncover some of the reasons behind this emotion.

  1. Perceived Inequality:
    Sometimes employees get angry because of perceived inequality. For example, an employee could perceive other employees as being less productive or effective but being rewarded or supported more often. This sense of inequality whether it is perceived or real, can lead to a lack of self-confidence as well as frustration and resentment against management that provides the rewards and support.
  2. Poor Fit for Tasks or Roles:
    Sometimes an employee gets upset because they are given tasks or a role in the company that they are ill-suited for. The introvert who gets stressed by interacting with people and who is asked to go sell for company may go do it, but stews inside at being asked to step so far out of his or her natural comfort zone.
  3. Being Targeted or Picked On:
    It is easy for people to annoy each other quite quickly. However, when employees purposefully irritate their colleagues for an extended period, talk down to them, or provide incorrect information, they may be sabotaging their colleagues. The employee who receives such subtle or overt negative behavior, will grow angry at being picked on or targeted.
  4. External Pressures:
    In other cases, an employee is undergoing personal issues and dealing with something outside of the workplace that impacts his or her attitude in the workplace attitude. Issues such as divorce, difficulty managing children, sickness in a child, parent, partner or family member can all become sources of stress that manifest into anger, particularly when the employee doesn’t feel they are being supported by their boss or the workplace.

Learn to Notice Behaviors
These upset, frustrated and angry employees can come across in different ways. As a leader, you want to watch your employees for signs of changes in behavior. Does someone seem to sulk in meetings more often? Are they giving short clipped answers when they were formerly a talkative person? Are they responding to innocent questions with hostile answers? Most employees shift their behavior in subtle ways at first, and then more noticeably, if the behavior goes unchecked. As the leader, you want to be sure you are in touch with the behavior of your staff or encouraging your managers to know what’s happening with each of their people. Anger that isn’t noticed and addressed can turn into one of the dramatic cases where someone ends up getting hurt by the angry employee.

Once you have identified the shift in behavior, or you decide to address an employee who is constantly nasty or negative, there are a few things you want to do in order to deal with the person effectively:

  1. Seek to understand. A common response to negative employee behavior is to squash the angry behavior, but there can be many reasons why your employee is angry as outlined above. Many people have also never been taught to deal with uncomfortable or negative emotions. They don’t know how to manage themselves and so they act out in ineffective ways. While you can’t condone the negative, angry behavior in your workplace, you can first approach the employee with compassion and an observation that something must be wrong. You can start by saying something like, “It’s just not like you to be so sullen in our Monday meetings, Hugh. Is there anything going on that is impacting you negatively?” Or “I’m a bit concerned. I’ve observed you speaking in a very angry tone to Stella, our receptionist, and she has mentioned being afraid to talk with you. Has Stella done something? Is there a problem we need to address?” It’s important to get the dialogue going without being accusatory, but rather by uncovering the origin of the anger.
  2. Identify specifically what the employee is doing. Don’t just say, “What’s up with the lousy attitude lately, Mark?” Your definition of “lousy attitude” may be different from Mark’s. Sometimes people know exactly what they are doing, but often they do not. Be clear and specific: “I detect a negative undertone to a lot of your comments lately. For example, in today’s meeting you said…” Or “The customer from the North End called and said you were behaving in an angry manner. She said you used four language when you couldn’t get the computer to work. Is that true? What happened?” The more specific and clear you can be in how you communicate, the better it will be for the employee to understand his or her behavior.
  3. Deal directly with the employee. Instead of discussing the issue at hand with colleagues to find out what’s going on, deal directly with the employee. Too many times managers or business owners will ask around to try and learn information about the employee in question. They seek input from a friend or colleague of the person – something like, “Hey, do you notice anything strange about Ed lately? What’s going on?” It can seem innocent, as if you are just trying to validate your interpretation by asking others, but it is very disruptive and hurtful to the employee you are querying about. If you want to know what’s going on, go right to the source.
  4. Model the behavior you want to see. Many times people in charge don’t realize the messages they are sending by the behavior they favor. If you tend to outbursts in meetings, speak harshly to employees when they do something wrong, or “stew” when you are upset about things going on in your company, your employees will get the message that this type of behavior is okay. They might even interpret it as the favored approach. Watch your own behavior, get feedback on it and see what your employees see.

Most people don’t learn how to handle their emotions, especially negative ones. It’s very likely that at some point you will be faced with an employee whose behavior you reject. Try using one or more of these approaches and see if you can’t turn their negative behavior into something more positive.