The Disgruntled Employee: A History

American companies have been blaming workers for their own unhappiness since the late 1800s

Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

What exactly is a disgruntled employee? Is that a bad thing?

Corporations or organizations frequently use the term to explain away workers’ allegations of employer malfeasance. We’ve all heard things like, “This complaint doesn’t reflect our company culture; this is a controversy cooked up by a few disgruntled employees. Our workers are overwhelmingly happy with their jobs, their working conditions, and their pay. We know, because we ask them if they’re happy, and they assure us that they are.”

Even if they don’t use those exact words, employers have often tried to deflect accusations of harmful behavior by dismissing the complainant as a “disgruntled employee” — as if the employee’s working conditions had nothing to do with their disgruntlement.

In any case, the moniker “disgruntled employee” carries considerable weight in our business-minded culture: Amazon recently framed its workers’ protests as the “acts of a few disgruntled employees;” business magazines have warned that “disgruntled employees can destroy your company culture”; and last year, even the White House dismissed scathing criticism from ex-officials as the grousing of “disgruntled employees.” It is a pejorative term in our discourse. But what’s the history behind the phrase? When and how did it come to signal an unjustly unhappy laborer?

There’s no example of a boss who “disgruntles” their workers. Instead, the disgruntled appear in literature, already aggrieved, already sulky, and only context can help us understand the source of their discontent.

The first known use of the term “disgruntled” dates back to the 1680s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. To “disgruntle” someone, it says, is, “to put [them] into sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humor; to chagrin, disgust.” However, the dictionary provides no example of that verb in common usage. In other words, there is no textual instance — or at least none cited — of one person disgruntling another. There’s no example of a boss who “disgruntles” their workers. Instead, the disgruntled appear in literature, already aggrieved, already sulky, and only context can help us understand the source of their discontent.

The dictionary notes that the word “disgruntled” is now chiefly in use in the United States, and that has been the case since at least the late 19th century. For instance, an author writing in the Contemporary Review in January of 1892 described someone in “a melancholy or gloomy or — to use an expressive American term — a ‘disgruntled’ temper.”

What is so very American about disgruntlement? And when did “disgruntled” become a notably American term?

The word “disgruntled” appears in scattered instances throughout the 1840s and 1850s in American newspapers, often in discussion of political controversies or disagreements. Candidates, party members, and politicians are described as “disgruntled,” or their constituents are described as “disgruntled” with their representatives. It was a word that captured a sense of irritation, disdain, discontent.

Interestingly, in 1853, one North Carolina newspaper called it “a Virginia word.” Indeed, judging from the newspapers indexed in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database, in the 1840s and 1850s “disgruntled” appeared almost exclusively in Southern newspapers. The first appearance of the term in a Northern newspaper in the database occurs in 1855, in a New York Herald column about Virginia politics and the Know-Nothing party, written by a Virginia correspondent.

The idea of the disgruntled employee as honest whistleblower was quickly eclipsed by the image of the disgruntled employee as a disruptor of business as usual.

So “disgruntled” was perhaps not just an American term but a particularly Southern term, appearing in newspapers in the 1840s and 1850s as a word that explained discontent arising from political differences. Disgruntlement was a political state of affairs, the grumbling discontent of those who were out of power, if only temporarily. Interestingly, enslaved people were never characterized as “disgruntled” by Southern newspapers. It would seem only those who had a chance at having some power over their situation in the first place could be truly disgruntled.

The phrase “disgruntled employee” shows up first in the Chronicling America database in 1877, the year of the Great Railroad Strike and the beginning of the post-Reconstruction battle between capital and labor that we have come to know as the Gilded Age.

The first instance comes from a Southern newspaper, the Intelligencer of Anderson Court House, South Carolina. On February 15, 1877, the newspaper reprinted a column that eviscerated the meatpacking industry of the “Northwest” (Chicago, Milwaukee, and Green Bay) for unsanitary practices and unsafe handling of hog carcasses. The point of the column was to induce Southern farmers to raise hogs locally. The article argued that no matter what regulations might exist in the centers of the packing industry, it was too easy for companies to dodge the rules and use tainted meat.

Employers who resort to such scandalous methods of money-making make themselves liable to be exposed, accused, and convicted by the testimony of disgruntled employees. But, we ask, was there ever a law so stringent, or an employee so honest, that one could not be as easily evaded in the violation as the other could be bought in the game, where heavy net gains were the prize?

This is a fascinating passage, a snapshot of a particular understanding of labor relations. “Disgruntled employees” emerge as a distinctly industrial cohort. They have knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes at their employers’ factories — disgruntled employees literally know how the sausage is made — and the consumer can only hope that they will be “honest” and rat out their employers. However, the article warns, even the most honest employee “could be bought,” for rare would be the “disgruntled employee” who risked his own income to expose his employer’s malfeasance.

The “disgruntled employee,” then, was someone who had a degree of agency. Consumers might hope that such employees would use their agency to blow the whistle on unsanitary industrial activities, but any disgruntled employee who did so might soon become an ex-employee.

However, the idea of the disgruntled employee as honest whistleblower was quickly eclipsed by the image of the disgruntled employee as a disruptor of business as usual. “Disgruntled Employees Tried to Start a Boycott,” reads an 1893 headline on the front page of the New York Evening World. The brief story describes two workers who were charged with disorderly conduct for standing outside their place of employment and trying to persuade customers not to enter the establishment, a dress shop called Redfern. As the article reported, they “were two of 30 striking tailors who quit work yesterday on account of an alleged cut of $3 per week in their wages.”

Rather than blame the contracting economy on the overweening greed of industrialists, some in the American middle class found the “disgruntled employee” an easier scapegoat.

Here, we are seeing the early effects of the Panic of 1893 — what we would call an economic depression — as overextended credit and tumbling commodity prices led to bank runs, tightened lending, economic contraction, wage cuts, mass unemployment, and political unrest among America’s working classes. The Populist movement of the 1890s drew much of its political energy from this perilous moment in the American economy.

In February of 1893, when this article about disgruntled employees ran on the front page of the New York paper, nobody knew for sure that what they were experiencing was the Panic of 1893 — but we can detect some panic, some unease about labor’s demands, in this and similar stories. “The two men were arrested,” the article tells us, “while relating grievances to ladies outside Mr. Redfern’s door.” These “disgruntled employees” were using their agency not to protect the consumer but to protect themselves. They spoke of “grievances” on their own behalf, not on behalf of customers. Instead of using their agency and losing their pay for it, they lost their pay and then used their agency.

Rather than blame the contracting economy on the overweening greed of industrialists, some in the American middle class found the “disgruntled employee” an easier scapegoat. A 1902 editorial in the Paducah Sun condemned the labor movement and the call for higher wages from industrial workers as an attack on the consuming classes of the American economy. “There is no reason the army of consumers in this country should be made to fill the pockets of a few classes of disgruntled employees who are already well paid,” it reads. In particular, the article complained, those who are already well compensated, “because they imagine they have the power, are always seeking to get more and more out of their employers.”

Here we see a new shading on the meaning of disgruntlement. It is no longer a descriptor reserved only for those whose agency has somehow been frustrated; now “disgruntled” is a description of those who, in the view of the consuming classes, should not have agency at all. “[E]very dollar that is paid them over and above a reasonable wage scale,” the newspaper warned, “is made up by taking it in turn from the oftentimes poorer consumer and is simply robbing the many to enrich the few.”

Those “few” in question here were railroad workers striking for higher pay. But in an adjacent column, those “selfish” few were the coal miners of western Kentucky, discussing a strike for better wages. The newspaper, profiting in part from large advertisements from rail lines like the Denver & Rio Grande, the Rio Grande Western, the Burlington Route, and the B&O Railroad, among others, was ready to take the side of the railroads against their workers, depicting worker demands for fair pay as a scheme of “enrichment” for an already well-compensated few.

Almost as soon as it appeared in the American lexicon, the image of the “disgruntled employee” shifted from one who should be listened to as a whistleblower and a truth-teller to one who should be disregarded as the selfish adversary of hard-pressed “consumers.”

Yes, you may hear politicians today argue that the push for a $15 minimum wage is a greedy money grab that will inevitably result in higher costs to businesses that will be passed directly to consumers — because businesses just have to make up that additional expenditure with other income rather than with ever-so-slightly reduced profits. But understand what you’re hearing: Not a reasonable analysis of economic conditions in the 21st century, but a demonization of the hardest working Americans in the riskiest jobs, straight out of the Gilded Age.

Writer, historian of American thought & culture. Editor of TheMudsill.substack.com, a little magazine publishing new & established authors. Book under contract.

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