Handling an angry employee can be intimidating. Whether you’re nervous that they’ll lash out, concerned about how you’ll respond, or wondering what you can do to best protect the company, there are many things to consider. In a perfect world, angry employees would give you at least 24 hours of notice so you could review policies and plan your response before they get mad.
Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. That’s why it’s important to proactively think about how to deal with an angry employee. To help you out, we’ve put together a list of things to consider, always do, and avoid doing when dealing with an upset employee.
The 24-Hour Rule
Think back to the last time you were really angry. Remember how your brain buzzed with irrational thoughts, how hot your face felt, how your chest felt like it might explode? Anger is an emotional response.
If the concerns of an angry employee don’t need to be addressed immediately, consider asking them to take the rest of the day off. This allows the employee to address the problem the next day instead of in the heat of the moment. Time often brings perspective, and perspective often leads to more rational behavior.
Backup might not always be necessary when dealing with mild irritation. However, it’s never a bad idea to invite someone to sit in on tough conversations to corroborate incidents (and offer some moral support). An HR colleague or the employee’s manager are usually good choices.
For any anger that’s coupled with or could potentially lead to violence, don’t be afraid to call security or law enforcement. One of your HR responsibilities is to ensure safety for your employees. Sometimes backup is necessary to do that.
The Deeper Issues
Problems like failing relationships, financial stresses, unexpected deaths, feelings of inadequacy weigh on your employees regularly. When an angry employee has an outburst, it’s likely that the work issue was just the last straw in a long line of back-breaking struggles.
Looking for deeper issues can help you be more understanding and supportive when it matters most to your employees.
For example, an employee could be angry that their recent performance review suggested getting to the office earlier. But maybe they’ve been late because their recent divorce has required a new daycare drop-off schedule. Maybe they’re angry because the performance review is a reminder of this painful change and they feel like no one at work understands how difficult it is.
Looking for deeper issues can help you be more understanding and supportive when it matters most to your employees. Of course, it’s not your job to be a therapist, but you can provide resources to help employees get through tough times that might impact their work performance.
Anger isn’t always a huge deal. Even your most emotionally intelligent employees may boil over sometimes. Develop a relationship where employees feel comfortable venting their anger with you. If employees know you’ll listen and help them, anger can turn into a constructive motivator.
When you listen, make sure your entire focus is on the employee. Don’t think about your response. Don’t interject with solutions right away. Ask thoughtful questions and give indications (like head nods) that you’re engaged. The trust you develop through listening will give you be a valuable influence and help employees grow.
Follow Procedures and Document Everything
If the employee’s anger leads them to do something that crosses the line, make sure you follow proper firing procedures. Of course, safety is the most important thing, so if anger turns into violence, don’t wait to call security until after you consult the firing policy.
If the employee’s behavior only warrants a clear correction, put them on a performance improvement plan that explicitly outlines what needs to change. Even if the anger is minor and simply requires a quick discussion, still document it in case the behavior becomes a pattern.
Look at your company’s benefits and figure out if there is anything that could help your angry employee. Depending on your time-off policies, you might suggest a day of paid time off or an emotional health day so they can decompress. Maybe walk them through the employee assistance program so they can meet with a therapist and work through emotional issues.
At the very least, the employee needs a little help communicating more effectively with those around them. Whether it’s setting boundaries, learning how to have crucial conversations, or gaining the ability to take critical feedback, you can help.
Suggest a self-improvement book and spend some time in one-on-one coaching. Better yet, create a training that could be helpful for all employees and prevent anger in the future. If one employee needs some training, it’s likely that other employees probably do too.
Anger is okay. Being tasked with figuring out how to deal with an angry employee is okay. Abusive behavior is not. All humans deserve respect, and no employee—you included—should have to tolerate abusive behavior.
If you encounter an employee who yells, threatens, or uses other demeaning or unreasonable communication, ensure safety first. Calmly let the employee know that their behavior is crossing the line. Then take the necessary steps to document the incident and administer the discipline that your organization deems appropriate.
Have an Emotional Reaction
Remember that people’s treatment of you often has very little to do with you and everything to do with them (see “Deeper Issues” above). Even if an employee is red in the face and screaming or baiting you into an argument, it’s crucial that you keep your cool and act rationally. Yes, you are a person who also has emotions. But your HR role also means that you must protect the company legally, which means following procedure.
Even if every fiber of your being wants to scream “YOU’RE FIRED!”, even if no one would blame you for hurling back equally-painful insults, take a deep breath and reach into your zen (or legal robot) space.
Small displays of anger, if ignored, can turn into something more serious. If left to fester, they can build up in the employee and spread throughout your organization, taking a major toll on your culture. Plus, where there’s anger, there’s possibly a need for change. When listening to angry employees, look for opportunities for your organization to improve.
Perhaps your culture needs to change. Perhaps you need to adjust benefits so that employees can get the help they need. Maybe that employee’s manager simply needs some training so that their reports can have a better experience. In any case, ignoring anger doesn’t help anyone. Addressing it can help everyone in your organization grow.
Handle Angry Employees Proactively
Angry employees are an inevitable part of every workplace. With the amount of time we spend at the office, we’re likely to experience the entire spectrum of emotions at work at some point. Because of this, it’s important to be thoughtful about how you will manage a disgruntled employee when you encounter one. With a little consideration and preparation, you’ll be able to keep your cool and navigate the situation safely.