How to stop your employees from revolting

Kate Russell, managing director of Russell HR Consulting, discusses how small businesses can keep their staff happy at work.

Kate Russell, managing director of Russell HR Consulting, discusses how small businesses can keep their staff happy at work.

We all know that old joke that runs “Sire! The peasants are revolting! ‘True! Then take them away and have them washed.’

Revolts in real life can be pretty scary for those on the receiving end. In April 1789, there was a mutiny aboard the British Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty lead by Fletcher Christian against the captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, allegedly because of Bligh’s harsh treatment of the crew. Bligh, and the remainder of the crew who were loyal to him, were set adrift in a small boat. In an extraordinary feat of seamanship, Bligh navigated the boat 3618 nautical miles to safety, equipped with a quadrant and pocket watch but without charts or compass.

This week I came across a mutiny on dry land. It’s an extraordinary story. Chip Starnes is the co-owner of Specialty Medical Supplies, a Florida-based company. Last weekend, he visited the company’s plant in Beijing and says he was forced to sign an agreement that met the demands of about 100 workers for better severance pay. Such extreme action is apparently fairly common in China.

Mr Starnes was understandably shocked by the experience. I think most of us would be. Fortunately, most employees express their concerns in rather less violent ways.

Prevention is better than cure. The first step is to spot possible concerns. Here are some common scenarios which may indicate that an employee may be unhappy at work:

• When an employee starts coming in late and taking longer breaks, but still leaves on time

• Employees withdrawing, not mixing with colleagues and being abnormally quiet

• Missed deadlines, poor quality work and lowered productivity

• Change in emotional temperature. For some, it’s a short fuse and blowing up about nothing. But when I’m really unhappy about something I just go quiet

• Higher levels of absence may also indicate a problem, especially if it’s out of character.

Please note that these are red flags – indicators which need to be investigated. Don’t assume anything – check the facts before reaching a conclusion.

What steps can employers take before issues which the majority of staff may be unhappy about spiral out of control?

The best way to build employee loyalty and a good level of retention is to give employees roles which are meaningful. Employees respond as much or more of the value of the work they’re doing as they are by material rewards.

Give honest and fully-thought-through feedback. If you have an objective and open communication style, employees can voice their thoughts freely. It’s important that you listen, reflect on what you’re hearing and give a considered and proportionate response – and that they know it.

Recognition is so important. Saying a specific ‘thank you’ for good work helps boost morale and reminds employees that their individual input is important to the company.

Provide ongoing development opportunities. This is partly to raise skill levels and increase flexibility. It also provides better promotion opportunities and helps with your succession planning. It doesn’t have to be ‘going on a course’. There are a huge number of ways to develop staff.

If an employee is unhappy with his or her manager it is open to the employee to raise a grievance. In my experience it’s always best to deal with workplace concerns informally and in a calm, courteous and objective fashion. You have no idea how much irrelevant tripe I have read or listened to in the name of resolving grievances. If you can keep it temperate you both have a much better chance of achieving a win-win outcome. The ones that are raised formally with clouds of righteous indignation aired by the employee can end in a really toxic fashion, especially if the employee is at fault in some way but blames the manager.

If we can identify and iron out workplace wrinkles, we’ll have a happier and more productive team. In turn that adds value to the bottom line.

Further reading on employee engagement

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