Last reviewed 5 March 2019

Good people managers are able to effectively identify the types of workers they have within their team, from the high achievers to the under-performers. It is arguably easier to categorise those who are the top and bottom of the scale, while colleagues who meet their work requirements but do no more can, effectively, fall under a manager’s radar. Employees who are disengaged from the organisation can sap the morale of the colleagues around them and create a negative impact on matters such as teamwork.

Engaging employees has become a key focus for HR and management, with key benefits including employees putting in discretionary time and effort over and above their contractual requirements. After all, what business would argue against receiving an extra 10 or 20% out of their staff? As a natural consequence, disengaged employees will not put any additional effort or time into their job role; instead, they will do what they have to do to get by. To-do lists will be ticked off and work will be submitted on time, every time, but nothing more. No ideas will flow, no additional responsibility will be volunteered for and no thought will be given to improvements or expansions. If all employees were disengaged, your business would falter and growth would suffer. Most importantly, however, these employees do not believe in your organisation. They are not invested in your culture and do not believe in your aims, whether short- or long-term. Therefore, they’re more likely to leave, or have shorter tenure, than a colleague who believes in the bigger picture of what you do.

Identifying disengaged employees

So how do managers spot those who are disengaged? It takes more than looking at top-level performance, after all the reason why the disengaged employee is rarely spotted is because they’re carrying out their work and completing tasks on time. Instead, managers will need to consider other signs, including those set out below.

Lack of involvement and ideas

Engaged employees will usually volunteer to be involved in consultations on the organisation’s future plans or initiatives. They may also contact their immediate manager with ideas on how a strategy can be improved or a new process put in place. When considering whether an employee is disengaged or not, consider the last time they volunteered to take on an extra responsibility or contributed an idea in a company meeting. A lack of comments or sharing of work-related material can be a sign of disengagement.

Working in isolation or deliberate segregation

Different types of employees work in different ways and it may be that an introverted employee simply wishes to work under their own steam. This can, however, be a sign of disengagement when an employee removes themselves from the team and does not become involved in team initiatives or celebrations of success.

Carrying out non-work activities in working hours

An employee who is motivated and invested will spend the entirety of their working time working, taking on extra tasks or developing new ideas when their task list is completed. A disengaged employee may use their working hours to send personal emails, complete their online shopping order or pursue personal interests. Most likely they’re counting down the minutes until they can leave the office once 5 o’clock ticks over and will be the first ones out the door.

Managing disengaged employees

As a manager, it is easy to get frustrated with those employees who have taken a virtual step back from the business. After all, you’re likely to believe that they have been supplied with the required tools, such as providing them with a company induction and communicating training opportunities, but your investment is not reaping any rewards. Rather than jumping to an unsupported conclusion or taking hasty action, you must approach the employee in a professional and sensitive manner; you don’t know the reason why the employee has become disengaged and their attitude towards working life could be affected by a personal matter. You want to come through this situation with a positive working relationship; therefore, this should be the leading consideration throughout this process.

As with any management concerns, the first step is to speak to the employee and outline the matter. They may not have noticed that their attitude has changed so this could give them the opportunity to consider, and identify, any work-related concerns or problems they have. An identification of actionable problems, such as the employee does not understand the organisation’s objectives or they have not felt listened to so no longer engage, need to be actioned. Where the employee informs you that a personal matter is affecting their professional manner, managers need to ensure they are equipped to provide the employee with appropriate workplace support, including highlighting the availability of any guidance services such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). On the other hand, this meeting may not provide you with any ways to work forward and it may simply be that the employee is not the best fit for the business. Again, an early identification of this will allow you to properly manage the employee while they remain part of the workforce, and help prepare for any negative impact on the rest of the team.

Talking to the employee may highlight that disengagement has occurred because they no longer feel challenged in their role; therefore, they are simply going through the motions while looking for progression opportunities elsewhere. Where appropriate internal progression opportunities are available, these can be communicated to the employee to remind them that the business will support their development. Providing support, such as highlighting any areas for development should they wish to successfully progress, will reiterate the organisation’s support and trust in the employee. Alternatively, rather than advertising alternative roles, managers can consider whether challenges can be provided in their current role. These could be taking on a more senior position in a project or carrying out a new task that has greater responsibility. Being seen to invest in an employee’s progression within the organisation will help increase their levels of engagement.

Managers can also monitor engagement levels across the workforce by providing employees with a forum to provide feedback, such as carrying out staff surveys. These should not just be generic HR questions, however, and should be focused on specific matters such as development and training. Encouraging employees to answer fully and honestly will ensure these forums are as useful as possible, and confidentiality can be used to this end. Again, all feedback provided needs to be actively reviewed and actioned to ensure the business is learning and progressing.