Grudge destruction

Don’t let disgruntled employees disrupt your office

Fred Mael

A member of your staff (“Terry”) applied for a position or a promotion within your company and was not chosen. Terry is disappointed and possibly offended. Worse, the person who got the job was previously Terry’s peer or perhaps even one of Terry’s subordinates.

This left Terry feeling angry and embarrassed and perhaps suspicious of why the other person was chosen. It left Terry doubting the fairness and wisdom of the company’s decision makers. Intentionally or not, Terry chose not to accept the decision. At a minimum, Terry checks out emotionally from the workplace, distancing himself from others (including you, the CEO) and treating them as if they were part of a conspiracy to deprive Terry of a deserved position. At worst, Terry embarks on a vendetta against the winner, engaging in a campaign to undermine the successful candidate.

As the leader, you or your subordinates need to intervene — for the sake of Terry, the sake of the winning candidate and, more importantly, for your company.

Talk it over

Being full of righteous indignation, jilted candidates may wonder why it’s such a bad move to stand on principle and make “them” pay for their poor choice. Someone needs to set these employees straight that the following will likely occur:

The quality of their work will suffer, thereby undercutting their argument that they were deserving of the higher position.
If they ask others to take sides, even those who flatter them to their face are unlikely to support him.
Their co-workers will see them as consumed by self-pity, and will lose their remaining respect for them. Co-workers will also resent them for keeping track of interactions with the rival and making them choose sides.
Sooner or later you or their direct manager will begin documenting their obstructive behavior and they will be fired or transferred (even in the government).
Even if they harass their nemesis (the winning candidate) into taking another job, they are unlikely to be chosen as the replacement, in part because they have lost credibility in most co-workers’ eyes.
Their reputation may be ruined, which would limit their ability to apply for other promotions in your organization.
As they focus most conversations on their resentment and anger, they will become boring to their colleagues and be avoided.

As someone who has coached a number of managers dealing with employees like Terry, I can tell you that employees may succeed in making their rivals’ lives miserable (and sometimes chase them out of their jobs), but they will almost never achieve their original goal of getting the promotion.

Consider Jane, who is still seething over the fact that her co-worker Mark got the job she felt she deserved. Jane disrupts meetings (if she comes at all), badmouths Mark to co-workers, and whenever Mark tries to assert himself, threatens “hostile workplace” suits and other legal action. Mark is clearly tense and distracted and it’s affecting his work and life satisfaction. He is considering applying for different jobs. However, Jane will never be the beneficiary of his leaving. She is being encouraged to leave as soon as feasible and may already have acquired a reputation as a toxic person.

Ways to overcome that grudge

Your jilted employee doesn’t have to approach this situation in such a mutually destructive way. Here are some alternatives you can suggest:

Seek out alternative interpretations. Have employees find a devil’s advocate they can trust who can help them reframe the hiring decision so they can see why it may have been made for valid reasons. If the choice does not reflect poorly on them personally, they may feel less need to seek vengeance for the perceived slight. Even their own boss or the person who made the decision, if asked in a non-accusatory fashion, may surprise them with the reasoning behind choosing the other person.
Seek counseling. A coach or counselor may help employees see things in a different light if they’re not inclined to listen to co-workers. The coach may also be able to provide them feedback from superiors and co-workers about what, if anything, is really holding them back from advancing in their careers.
Leave. If employees cannot get over the harsh feelings they harbor, you should suggest that they strongly consider leaving the company or the work unit and getting a fresh start.
Become a team player. Being supportive of the new boss will deeply impress others with the person’s maturity and loyalty to the organization. You may be able to convince employees that this approach will benefit them in the long run — if they can control their emotions and truly embrace the role.
Get a life. It never hurts to refocus on the truly important things in life, such as health, family, or faith. However, they may not be able to hear this from you or your staff if it is not consistent with the culture of your company.

Jilted employees have suffered a serious blow to their pride and sense of self-worth. They are trying to manage feelings of shame in a public setting where observers know why they are upset. Choosing wisely how they will go forward is crucial to making the best of a difficult situation. As a leader, you can influence the choices that your employees make under trying conditions.

Fred Mael, Ph.D., helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. Contact him at [email protected]. This article appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazines.