You may have encountered “The Angry Employee” spouting barbs and insults from their cubicle back when you were at your 9 to 5. You know the type. They kicked the table during meetings, slammed down the phone after a misunderstanding with a client, or bullied their fellow coworkers into fear and submission.

You dealt with it then by buying noise-cancelling headphones or you took convenient coffee breaks as soon as The Angry Employee went on a rage rampage, shouting four-letter words at top volume. It was annoying because The Angry Employee made everyone tense within a 10-mile radius, but, hey, this wasn’t your business or your responsibility, so you went about your day.

Now, you own a small business and you’ve encountered the return of The Angry Employee. You can no longer dodge conflict with headphones and coffee — you have to deal with it head-on because an irate employee not only makes for an uncomfortable work environment, but also they can lead to decreased productivity, plummeting morale, and your best employees’ heading for the door.

According to global research commissioned by CPP, Inc., the annual cost of workplace conflict in the U.S. is estimated to be $359 billion in paid hours due to lost time and productivity. This is the equivalent of 385 million working days. Think about it:

  • The Angry Employee monopolizes the time and resources of your HR and legal departments (if your small business is large enough to have them).
  • Depending on the outburst, you risk losing employees and clients, and then there’s the cost of turnover, as well as onboarding new team members and customers.
  • Regardless of your small business’s size, the costs of The Angry Employee add up fast.

Here are five simple steps to manage outbursts — before they escalate further — and help get your team back on track.

Approach With Calm

Don’t match angry behavior with anger and don’t get pulled into a battle — this will only escalate the issue. Speaking in a calm, even voice will trigger your employee to dial it down because your actions subconsciously encourage them to copy you. Also, watch out for what you’re doing with your facial expressions and hands, as the wrong nonverbal communication can be just as combative as raising your voice.

Change the Location

The area surrounding the outburst is tense and heated. Cool down the area by inviting The Angry Employee (and other parties directly involved in the conflict) into your office, conference room, or even outside. You could say, “Why don’t we have a chat outside?” or “Let’s step into my office to talk this out.”

The act of physically removing the central player from the scene gives The Angry Employee time to breathe, slow down, and recalibrate. You may have to issue a time-out and ask The Angry Employee to go for a walk to clear their head if the location change doesn’t cool down the situation.

Listen, Don’t Just Hear

Once you’re in a location away from the rest of your staff, find out what happened. Give The Angry Employee the opportunity to vent without interruption, and, if there’s another employee involved, also have them say their piece. Act like the referee in the situation, making sure each employee has had the opportunity to give his or her side of the story.

Be empathetic to their point-of-view without validating their opinion, by saying something like, “I hear you and I understand that you’re upset about X.” Be specific about your empathy, so the words don’t feel trivial when they land. Coming from a place of calm and compassion will give The Angry Employee fewer reasons to lash out and it will show that you’re giving them the respect of hearing them out. Remember, keep calm and be patient throughout the entire process.

Ask Questions

Get at the heart of the issue. When you probe the situation, people are more likely to open up and reveal the true source of their anger — especially as they’re calming down. They will likely shift from an angry state to an emotional or practical one. For example, an employee may snap at their team member for cutting them off mid-sentence, when the real issue is that The Angry Employee doesn’t feel respected by the team.

After you find out what happened, get into the whys. You can try using the 5 Whys technique, where you ask “why” in direct response to feedback given by the employee by reframing their response into a question. For example, you can say, “Why do you feel angry, Bob?” He might say, “I asked Marsha for the report five times and she’s ignored me!” You can then respond with, “Why do you feel Marsha is ignoring your requests for the report?”

Focus on Solutions

Make The Angry Employee part of the solution. Ask them how things could be made right or how they would ideally handle the situation. You can then offer an objective remedy and initiate a temporary cooling-off period before they go back to work. Close with, “Does this seem fair to you, Bob? Marsha?”

You also will want to evaluate whether the situation is a one-off or if it’s a pattern indicating a larger issue. If you believe there’s an ongoing need, and if you have the resources, you may want to invest in coaching or classes so the employee has the opportunity to gain the tools they need to help manage their anger in the workplace.

Defusing The Angry Employee’s outburst is a delicate process, and yet it’s critical to your small business’s success. Helping ensure a safe and positive workplace by stopping workplace bullying is one of the most important things you’ll do as a small business owner. Rather than avoiding the confrontation, aim to avoid future workplace conflict by addressing The Angry Employee as soon as he or she appears.

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Have you ever had to deal with The Angry Employee? How do you resolve workplace conflict? Let us know in the comments below.