Top strategies for dealing with ‘disgruntled employees’ — and why they don’t work

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Not only are employees demanding higher pay, better conditions and the right to work from home, there is an increasing tendency for them to go public with workplace complaints.

Here are the top strategies for dealing with staff who speak out — and why they don’t work.

1. Rubbish them

Facebook’s approach to the criticism from its former product manager Frances Haugen was to paint her as junior and ignorant — “worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question”.

Lawyers defending Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes at her fraud trial painted as “incompetent” whistleblower Adam Rosendorff, who was lab director at the blood testing start-up before he left and alleged the company was a scam.

The go-to term, though, is “disgruntled”. That was Donald Trump’s phrase last month for his former press secretary Stephanie Grisham after she wrote a tell-all book. It has been used to tar critics by hundreds of companies over the years, including the family offices of both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

The weakness is it is a statement of the obvious. They are obviously disgruntled or they would not be complaining! That does not mean they are wrong. Any ad hominem approach is likely to fail because it doesn’t deal with the problems raised by the unhappy former employee.

2. Don’t hire them in the first place

This is the innovative idea from Coinbase chief executive Brian Armstrong. Concerned by critical media coverage of top tech companies, Armstrong this week suggested hiring only “independent thinkers who are insulated from biased third parties scripting their mind”.

It is unclear how independent Armstrong really wants this thinking. He banned political discussion at work a year ago and one in 20 staff at the cryptocurrency company subsequently quit. Insulated is the more operative word.

But this risks creating an echo chamber; a more diverse range of voices might have prevented Coinbase’s misguided recent attempt to fight the Securities and Exchange Commission. And as any company grows, its ability to preserve common belief invariably weakens.

3. Silence them

For years the preferred way of handling serious complaints has been a (preferably small) bundle of cash and a watertight non-disclosure agreement. This solution is on the wane.

Former Pinterest public policy staffer Ifeoma Ozoma last year resigned from the social media company and went public with claims of racial discrimination. After breaking her own NDA, she then went on to campaign to prevent victims of harassment and discrimination from being gagged. On Thursday, California passed this protection into law. Similar legislation is proposed in Ireland, another major base for the world’s biggest tech companies. “We’re seeing an expansion of this desire to have transparency,” said Richard Reice, a New York-based employment lawyer.

This goes beyond serious claims of harassment and discrimination. More people feel entitled to air criticism of their former workplace, though as Reice points out: “One of the things that makes that possible is you have a group of employees who can afford to take that position.” It is no accident that many high-profile examples come from the well-paid tech sector.

Faced with the failure of the existing strategies, companies can only acknowledge wrongdoing where it exists and fight back with facts when it does not. To reduce the chance of leaks, they will also have to tighten access to data, an ironic outcome for tech companies built on the idea that information wants to be free.

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