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7 Questions to Ask an Unhappy Employee


The phrase, “a happy employee is a productive employee” has been repeated for decades by leaders and management academics. And, even in this world of remote work and a focus on work-life balance, the phrase continues to prove true. According to one study, companies with high worker satisfaction outperform low-satisfaction companies by 202%.

The good news is 65% of employees in the US are satisfied with their job. With 20% saying they are passionate about their current position. However, there are still millions of people who are unhappy in their current jobs. 

Whether you’ve just started your side hustle or you’re a serial entrepreneur, you know that building employee happiness is key to building a great company. But what do you do if you suspect that an employee is unhappy? Is employee unhappiness permanent?

Asking questions can open up dialogue to find the root cause of an employee’s unhappiness. By asking the right questions, you create the opportunity to gain insight into your employee’s mindset as well as your own company’s culture. Here are 7 questions you can ask an unhappy employee.


How Have You Been Doing Lately?

It might be easy to think of an employee’s happiness as irrelevant until it begins impacting their performance. But the truth is that it’s important to see employees as more than employees – they’re people. Serious, significant events can and will impact people’s lives. And the mental load a person carries can impact their job performance. 

Whether it’s losing a child, losing a parent, or losing a home, people can carry these things with them. So, if you ask an employee how they’re doing, they might open up to you in a way that you’re not prepared to handle. And, while it’s important to maintain appropriate boundaries, it’s also a good idea to make sure that employees have the right place to go to for help with life’s biggest challenges. 

If your company has an Employee Assistance Program, this can be a helpful way for employees to get confidential help with some of life’s toughest challenges.

It is important to note, however that you should never ask if the job is causing any work/life issue or emotional stress. It is also very important that employers do not speculate about life events’ affect on performance. As an employer you should only be open to those conversations if the employee brings it up. 


Is There Something You’d Like to Express?

This is an open-ended question that could yield a variety of results. It’s one way you can ask for an opinion without demanding a yes or no response. The answer might capture what’s really on the person’s mind. If an employee is noticeably very unhappy, you’ll want to pay attention to any non-verbal body language cues that might signal that their words aren’t matching their true opinions.


How Do You Feel About Your Job?

Unhappy employees are often the same employees that underperform and exhibit low engagement. Asking an employee how they feel about their job will give you some much-needed insight into their behavior. However, this question may not always be the easiest to answer for the employee.

Oftentimes, employees feel they cannot be honest with their employers. There may be a sense of apprehension by the employee. Perhaps they feel as though they can be punished or even fired for expressing their true feelings. As a leader, you need to reassure your employees that you want their feedback so that you can improve their work life. Not so that you can hold it against them.

This question can give you the opportunity to confirm existing suspicions you might have. For example, you might think an employee needs more challenge in their role, but they might want to remain where they are. Or, you might think an employee is perfectly situated where they are, but their perception could be that they need a more challenging position.


How Do You Feel About Your Co-Workers?

The best teams are fueled by teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, and mutual respect. If you’re not “in the trenches” so to speak, you might not be exposed to how the team works. How are co-workers getting along? Has a toxic workplace developed? This question can allow you to confirm suspicions if you believe that a negative workplace dynamic has developed.

Very few workplaces exist without some tension between co-workers. If not perpetually, then maybe in times of high stress such as a busy season or company transition. Asking your unhappy employee how you feel about their co-workers may give you insight into some of their unhappiness. 


What Do You Like About Your Job?

This is a question that can allow you to capitalize on an unhappy employee’s strengths, especially if you suspect that the person is not a good fit for the job. Listen well to what you hear after asking this question. If an employee likes nothing – or very little – about their job, pay close attention. 

It’s important for all employees to know what their strengths and interests are. This becomes even more important when it becomes clear that an employee is no longer interested or able to remain in their role. 

If your employee hasn’t already shared the negatives about their job, you may want to ask a follow-up question. And that question should be “what do you dislike about your job?” This will help you put together the pieces about the source of the employee’s unhappiness at work.


What Motivates You?

Different people are motivated by different things. And, an employee’s motivations may change over time. Some employees are motivated by their salary and future career position. While other employees are motivated by non-financial rewards. As a leader, it is important that you understand what motivates each employee so that you can do your best to facilitate that motivation. 

However, sometimes employees aren’t entirely sure what truly motivates them. If one of your employees is still trying to find out what gets them going, you can help the process by offering some ideas for incentives. Here are just a few of the things that can motivate a person:

  • Pay raises
  • Work environment – remote, hybrid, flex, etc.
  • Culture
  • Autonomy
  • Security
  • Work-life balance
  • Praise
  • Creativity in work
  • Freedom to create the work they desire
  • The reputation of the business
  • Relationships with customers, vendors, or suppliers
  • Rewards – prizes, contests, raffles, etc.
  • Community

These are just some of the things that can motivate a person. And, many of the things that motivate a person to work aren’t directly connected to the workplace. For example, a person may be motivated to work to save for a down payment on a house or to save for a new car. 

Understanding what motivates a person – and equally important, what de-motivates a person – can help when an employee or group of employees is unhappy. 


How Can We (The Company/Management) Help You?

When an employee feels set up to fail on the job, it’s a recipe for employee unhappiness. Do your employees have what they need to do their jobs? Have budgets been cut? Have resources been eliminated? Employees can lose morale when they don’t have what they need to be successful.

So, it’s a good idea to ask an unhappy employee how the company can help them. Do experienced employees need the chance to learn something new? Does company equipment need upgrading? Are there known issues with equipment, internal systems, or tools that employees use on a frequent basis? Employees are often in the face of problems, so they can often contribute to solutions.

How can we help you is a good question to ask unhappy employees who may not be proficient at their jobs. It’s a good way to determine how to course-correct if they need additional training, mentoring, or support to succeed. 


Having conversations with unhappy employees might seem awkward, but it’s worth it. There are several ways you can begin a dialogue. You can ask employees what they enjoy about their jobs, what help they need, and how they feel about their co-workers. The input you receive just might help pull an employee out of a slump of unhappiness and back onto a track of satisfaction.

Erin Shelby on TwitterErin Shelby on Wordpress
Erin Shelby
Team Writer: Erin Shelby is a writer and blogger based in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @ByErinShelby

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Find Your Way · Grow Your Business · Leading Your Team · Your Mindset

Team Writer: Erin Shelby is a writer and blogger based in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @ByErinShelby

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