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August 17, 2010
Controlling the Disgruntled Employee Problem Today
As the country laughs about its recent five-minutes-of-fame celebrity, a frustrated airline steward who just couldn’t take it any more and left the plane via an emergency chute, it may be a good time to think about the broader implications of disgruntled employees.

Employees who act out against their employers, associates, or customers are relatively rare, especially those who do so in harmful ways. The U.S. Department of Labor collects statistics on injuries and deaths in the workplace, so we know that homicides are relatively rare, less than one per 100,000 workers in most sectors. This includes, by the way, the U.S. Postal Service, which contributed the now-standard name for this problem: "going postal." Homicides are more frequent in retail, at about two per 100,000 a year.

Scheduling regular safety checks

There was a shooting in a factory near my office here in central Massachusetts just last week. The local media reported seven deaths. When these incidents occur, we briefly worry about the health and sanity of our fellow workers, then we go back to work. The infrequency of such events keeps us from focusing on prevention for more than a day or two after each incident. Is there more we should be doing, and learning, from such incidents, whether they happen to end in tragedy or, as in the case of the airline steward, humor? I think so.

As a first step, every workplace needs to do much more frequent safety checks than they now do. Monthly is a good baseline. Weekly is sufficient if clear warning signs exist. Daily is warranted if any indication exists of a need to be on high alert.

When did your workplace last have a fire drill? Maybe some time in the last year or two, maybe never. What about other kinds of safety drills or reviews? None? I thought so. Now think about the risks in your workplace. Is fire at the top of the list? Probably not, unless you’re working with flammable materials (mines, welding facilities, etc.). Most push paper or interact with customers. The thing that most likely will become inflamed in these workplaces is someone’s temper.

Checking for simmering psychos

OK, that heading may be a bit over the top, but the need is real. The hundreds of thousands of U.S. adults who are low on emotional stability are potentially at risk of some kind of meltdown or blowup (stability, or calmness, is one of the five major personality traits, along with extroversion, accommodation, conscientiousness, and openness to experience). Add instability, a common trait in the population, to specific stressors like resentment, loneliness, and alienation, and for some people, the result is predictable: An apparently sudden and unexpected outburst of inappropriate action, which may range from cursing out a customer to shooting one’s co-workers and boss.

When a headline-grabbing incident occurs in a workplace or school, people usually come forward with recollections that fit a standard checklist of signs of trouble (signs that were ignored regrettably). Here are some of the flags to teach your employees to look out for (selected from the Violence Prevention Checklist in my 2003 book, "Taming the Conflict Dragon"). Your workplace is at risk, If one or more people meet some or all of the following:
  • Makes threats?
  • Expresses anger repeatedly, especially about mistreatment?
  • Has access to weapons?
  • Says they want to get even with someone specific in the workplace?
  • Expresses anger physically, even in minor ways?
  • Seems to be a “loner” without a social network of close friends or relatives?
  • Is a stranger to those he or she works with?
  • Has exploded verbally on multiple occasions, shouting at others?
  • Appears to take an unusual interest in violent activities such as attacks in other workplaces?
  • Suspected of ongoing substance abuse?
  • Sometimes behaves self-destructively?
  • Makes you feel afraid for your own safety?
  • Makes inappropriate jokes about violent actions?
We do not know the people we call co-workers or classmates. Advance indicators often indicate that someone is having trouble and could cause trouble soon. It’s important to create a climate in which everyone feels completely comfortable using a checklist such as the one above and sharing their concerns with someone who takes action about them.

To make it comfortable to share your concerns about someone means making false positives OK for all, including the person under suspicion and those pointing the finger. That means an investigation by a professional psychologist or social worker who can evaluate the person without prejudice, along with a guarantee not to hurt his or her career if the rumors are unfounded. It also means zero retribution for those who (anonymously, please!) raise warning flags. When the person in question is hard to be sure about but clearly has violated performance expectations, it may mean continuing to pay them a generous severance, while not allowing this person any further access to the workplace. These are, perhaps, hard rules to follow, but no other way exists to exercise proper care in the face of a possible threat.

Then there is the almost universal lack of hard security measures in workplaces: Open offices and campuses make it easy for someone with an axe to grind to gain access, perhaps with that axe in hand. A second look at the security systems is needed in most workplaces, too.

Now for some positive thinking!

Preventive measures are worth a pound of cure, to be sure, but they are just a small part of the bigger equation of what makes for a healthy, happy workplace. The vast majority of unhappy, unproductive employees will not make the headlines but are still a problem.

I estimate that about one-third of the workforce is routinely unhappy with their work. Of these, only a handful choose to fight (in the form of a blow-up or argument at work), while a larger number choose flight (in the form of an exit to another job, even if it pays less).

However, the biggest proportion of unhappy employees choose a third basic biological response to stress, which I call freezing, or feeling helpless or stuck. They are unable to do anything about their situation. The proverbial deer in the headlights represents this response, which is commonplace, but less healthy than the fight-or-flight response if you’re in a bad situation.

The poor state of the economy has increased the number of employees who are unhappy but feel trapped in their current positions. These frozen employees may stay in this state for some time, perhaps until they get laid off or retire. Alternatively, they may switch to flight or fight responses -- a few will become tomorrow’s headlines. Many will not do any active harm, but they certainly don’t bring much positive energy to their work or to their interactions with peers and customers.

Who’s holding the economy back right now, anyway?

Because these unhappy, frozen, employees think there’s nothing they can do to improve their own situation, they are unable to see anything else with optimism, either. So they are chronically uncreative and resist changes, including any efforts to innovate. Unhappy, negative employees are just as common in the management ranks as at lower levels. In the leadership training I do in both private sector and government workplaces across the U.S., I see a lot of managers whose attitudes are negative, too. They may not be in the spotlight, the way a front-line employee like a flight attendant is, but they are just as likely to be unhappy with their situation and unable to see any positive way out.
Unfortunately, the economic recession stimulates this negative mind-set, which tends to spread a pessimistic pall over the entire workforce. If left to their own devices, the millions of unhappy employees will continue to resist change and find it impossible to focus on fresh ideas and approaches to their work. They are a huge hidden barrier to innovating our way out of the current economic stagnation. The nation is like a stag in the headlights, and somebody who isn’t frozen needs to give it a kick in the right direction. The emergency exit is not the right direction, because it fails to resolve any of the underlying problems in a positive way.

Energizing a down workforce

The three basic biological responses to threat -- fight, flight, and freezing -- are not the only options. Well, they may be for a deer in the headlights, but we humans have these handy frontal lobes in which higher thought and imagination take place. The trick to energizing a down workforce is to engage thought and imagination in positive ways. The fourth option, after fight, flight, and freezing, is innovation. You engage an innovation response by signaling that it’s OK, in fact better than OK, it’s rewarding to bring creative thought and optimism to the workplace once again.

This is an essential moment for leadership to step forward and take charge by creating a sense of positive forward momentum, instead of waiting to see who pulls the nearest emergency exit lever, or worse, goes postal. To unstick those frozen, unhappy employees and create positive momentum again, I suggest a three-step process:

1.) Collect a list of problems and complaints from your employees, and share your findings rapidly so everyone can see what the dominant issues are.

2.) Form innovation squads to pull enthusiastic employees into the process of generating good, new ideas and approaches based on the findings, making the criteria clear in advance for practical, doable proposals so that the teams don’t feel let down later if their million dollar project doesn’t get funding.

3.) Implement the top idea at once, the second-best idea shortly thereafter, and so forth until at least five good ideas are in place and functioning well, then repeat the process.

The trick to making this three-step process produce positive momentum is to do it rapidly. Set a faster pace than employees are used to, and you’ll help shake things up and get things moving again in all aspects of work. Innovating benefits employees and their employers not just by producing improvements, but also by building momentum and setting an exciting pace that draws people out of their slumps. For every employee who visibly chooses a fight-or-flight response -- or combines them in a showy exit down the emergency chute -- there are hundreds of thousands with similarly negative attitudes who do not take any action. Personally, I’d rather see employees taking action of some kind, than simply doing nothing. Inaction is a deadly state, and it spreads a feeling of hopelessness that is the biggest barrier to innovation and success.

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Alexander Hiam’s new book is "Business Innovation for Dummies." He teaches at U. Mass when he’s not helping workplaces embrace innovation and avoid the costs of unmanaged conflict.
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