Quiet vs. Grumpy Employees — Why You Should Worry About Your Silent Staff

Phil HR 11 Apr 2017


If you've ever received any formal first aid training, you'll know that it's the quiet, rather than noisy, casualties who should always be given priority.

That guy who's clutching his leg and bellowing will of course need your attention, but the injuries of the person lying unconscious are likely to be far more serious.

A similar approach should be taken to managing your team.

It's easy to know when one of your more vocal employees isn't happy — they'll probably make it their business to tell you. But when a member of staff keeps their frustrations to themselves, it can spell real trouble.

With that in mind, today we're taking a closer look at the issue of quiet employees, exploring the reasons why your staff might not want to air their grievances, and the impact this could have on your business.

Why staff stay quiet

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In an ideal world, your staff would all show up for work with smiles on their faces.

But in reality, things are rarely that simple. Personalities clash. Something goes wrong at work. People have problems at home to deal with.

Far worse than an employee who's constantly knocking on your door with comments and complaints, however, is one who never utters a word until it's too late.

After all, you can't fix a problem that you were never made aware of to begin with.

But why would an employee choose to keep their problems to themselves rather than approaching their HR manager and attempting to resolve them? Let's take a look at some of the more common causes for this behaviour:

Lack of trust
The employee's reluctance to bring their problem to their boss or manager could be an indication that they simply don't know or trust them enough to open up about it.

Lack of confidence
Although the employee trusts their manager enough to raise an issue with them, they question whether doing so will make any difference. This could be down to the employee's lack of confidence in their manager's abilities, or simply because the company's hierarchy limits said manager's power to act.

An unapproachable boss
The employee finds it difficult to speak openly with their manager, either because of they find them intimidating or because they anticipate a prickly or unsympathetic response. Employees are often reluctant to take their problems to such bosses for fear that doing so will reflect badly on them.

Ignorance of procedure
Your staff don't know how or where to raise an issue. This problem is more common in larger organisations that have multiple levels of management and when complaints procedures aren't made clear to employees.

It's personal
Or, finally, it could simply be that your employee's issue is something they don't feel comfortable talking about at work. Even if the cause of the problem came as the result of an unanticipated crossover, there are times when staff would rather keep their work and private lives separate.

A good HR manager will of course offer their staff a friendly ear regardless of whether their problem is a personal or a work-related matter. For the purpose of this discussion, however, we'll be assuming that it's the latter.

Why you should worry about silent staff

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If an employee is intent on keeping their work-related frustrations under wraps, then you might wonder whether there's any point worrying about them.

Those same employees, however, could have a tremendous impact on your business. Here's why:

They might quit

The most obvious potential outcome is that your employee becomes so unhappy that they look for another job.

The thought of taking up a new position — with new possibilities for growth and new people to work with — can be tempting even when you're not experiencing difficulties at work. When you're unhappy, however, a new job can seem like the answer to all your problems.

If your employee has been sitting on an issue for months, the likelihood is that they're already looking for something else. If the first thing you hear about their problem comes when they're handing in their notice, it's already too late.

Their problems could be serious

Few of us have a problem speaking openly about a yogurt missing from the office fridge or our boss's refusal to approve a leave request two weeks before Christmas.

The type of problems that staff are reluctant to discuss, however, are usually a little more serious in nature.

As well as tending to affect less outspoken employees more often than your more extroverted staff, issues like bullying in the workplace can also be difficult for quieter employees to broach with their manager.

Issues of this kind can have an enormous effect not just on your employee's work, but on their overall happiness, and could even result in them resigning or, if the problem persists for long enough, taking legal action.

Unchecked problems grow bigger

Whether it's a dispute with a coworker or a general lack of motivation at work, by keeping their problems to themselves, your disgruntled employee is more likely to stew on them.

When this happens, issues that could once have been dealt with quite easily become a major sticking point for the employee involved, tainting their view of the entire company and impacting upon their workplace relationships.

It could affect their health

As well as being generally less engaged in their work, people who routinely bottle up their feelings tend to behave more irritably towards their coworkers (thus compounding the notion that work itself is the cause) and may even have trouble sleeping.

Some studies have even suggested that emotional suppression can render an individual more susceptible to physical illness, leading to frequent use of sick days and causing the employee to think even more negatively about their job.

What to do about disgruntled employees who stay quiet

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Put procedures in place

The most obvious thing to do is ensure that you have proper procedures in place for employees to make complaints and air grievances — and that your staff are aware of them.

Do your staff know who to report work-related problems to?

Do they have regular contact with this person or are they located elsewhere in the building or even off-site?

If the problem the employee is experiencing is with the person they'd be expected to report to, is there someone else they can talk to?

Make the act of reporting problems and making complaints a part of your employee onboarding process so that staff know who they can to turn to should they experience difficulties at work.

Most importantly of all, make sure that there are both verbal and non-verbal channels that staff can use to report problems. You could even consider using services like TINYpulse, which allows employees to give anonymous feedback and provides managers with actionable data based upon it.

Review, review, review

Of course, the problems employees experience aren't always the result of workplace conflicts.

Your staff might simply be feeling overwhelmed, or, having been in the same position for years, be lacking in motivation and starting to tune out.

It's best to nip problems of this kind in the bud rather than letting them grow too big.

In order to do that, you need to provide your staff with regular opportunities to vent their frustrations. You should also keep track of things like lateness, use of sick days, and the employee's ability to meet targets, as these can all be useful indicators as to an employee's happiness and wellbeing in the workplace and will help you spot problems early.

Final thoughts

When you consider the incredible impact an employee who keeps their issues to themselves can have on your business, those staff who frequently come to you with complaints can suddenly seem like blessings in disguise.

We tend to devote a lot of time to talking about how to resolve issues in the workplace and making our staff happy to begin with. But spotting a problem when the person experiencing it is reluctant to discuss it can be just as much, if not more, of a challenge.

Your staff may share workspaces or job titles, but their personalities can will always differ greatly, so it's essential that you provide them with more than one way to express themselves and air their grievances.

It takes time and effort to set up multiple channels for communication and setting up opportunities for even the most introverted employee to make their feelings known. But if you can, you'll be avoiding a lot of headaches in the future.


Want more tips on how to identify and resolve problems in the workplace? Check out our in-depth guide to managing unhappy employees.