Human Capital Management Blog

Strategies for HCM Professionals

Turning the Tables: Better-managing Disengaged Employees

Recently, a friend told me about her discontent with work. With the job market in her field so tough, and a mortgage, two kids, and life to pay for, she felt hand-cuffed to the organization. Disengaged from the culture, she continues to “show up,” but doesn’t really put forth any extra discretionary effort, and more importantly, isn’t happy or satisfied.

My friend’s case illustrates an important fact: just because an employee stays with the company does not mean they are actively engaged in the job. When this type of situations, managers have two clear options:

  1. Accept the employee’s stance on the job and begin recruiting a replacement.
  2. Put some effort into turning the tables to ensure the employee once again becomes an active, engaged, and satisfied member of the team.

While choice No. 1 might seem necessary in certain specific scenarios, I would argue that No. 2 should be the first priority. Turnover costs a tremendous amount of money and disengaged staff members can be detrimental to profit margins. Rather than giving up on a disengaged employee, managers should instead work to bring them back from the brink.

Let’s talk about how this can be done.

Understanding the Prisoner Problem
A study by Aon Hewitt recently found that one disengaged employee is damaging alone, but can also lead to significant losses in morale and engagement among the rest of the team with which they work. My friend acknowledges that she can be a drain on her colleagues, with frequent complaints, poor interactions with customers, and a general negative attitude.  The study revealed a number of stats that apply to what it calls “Prisoners,” those staff members who are not engaged but nonetheless remain with the company:

  • Hourly workforce members are more likely to fall into this category than salaried ones.
  • Employees who have worked between one and two years at a job have a 6.3 percent chance of being disengaged while staying with the company.
  • The disengaged incidence rate climbs in each subsequent tenure category until it reaches a  high of 17.1% for those who work on the job for 26 years or more

The source also pointed out that the Prisoner issue tends to not be one-off matters concerning a sole employee. Rather, the Prisoner mentality occurs in batches, and can often be tied back to a specific reason, such as giving staff members too many tasks or not focusing on their engagement in the slightest. As is the case with any corporate strategy, there must be procedures in place to proactively avoid the issue of Prisoners, as well as response plans should the problem arise.

Interestingly, Aon Hewitt noted that Prisoners tend to be more likely to stay with a company than those who are generally engaged and satisfied. This means that managers do have a good opportunity to retain them for longer periods of time, it just takes work.

Prisoner Rehabilitation (Manager Intervention)
Although each company needs its own unique intervention plan to overcome the challenges of non-engaged employees, here are a few tips to get the ball rolling in the right direction:

  • Establish strong communication: Make sure the employee knows that the manager is aware of the disengagement and is committed to helping alleviate the problem as quickly as possible.
  • Listen: Provide the employee with a comfortable space to chat about the reasons why they are disengaged. Listen for cues that can be used to turn the tables.
  • Act: Do not just survey or question a disengaged employee – make sure the action points are put to work immediately. This will support the assertion that the manager is committed to re-engaging the employee.

Never give up on valuable employees – even if they seem too far gone in the engagement arena – as an honest attempt to correct the issue can pay off dividends.

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