Employee engagement has a darker side. Actively disengaged employees can be harmful to your business — but if you know the signs, you can put steps in place to turn matters around.
Employee engagement isn’t as clear-cut as you might think. In fact, according to Gallup, there are three classifications: engaged, not engaged and actively disengaged.
Engaged employees work with passion and have a real and profound connection to their company. These are the employees who innovate and drive the organisation forward. Disengaged employees are essentially “checked-out”. They don’t bring any passion, energy or enthusiasm to their role or the business. But it’s actively disengaged employees who represent the real threat.
Actively disengaged employees aren’t simply unhappy at work. They are so dissatisfied and frustrated with their role that they make a show of acting out their unhappiness. Actively disengaged employees undermine their fellow employees, they complain and they have a bad attitude which can spread throughout an organisation if left unaddressed. Actively disengaged employees can have a serious impact on your bottom line — they have been known to cost companies billions of pounds each year in lost productivity and, according to one source, almost two in 10 employees in the UK are actively disengaged, making them a serious performance management concern.
Below, we’ll highlight telltale signs of active employee disengagement.
1. Social Withdrawal and Lack of Participation
Gradual social withdrawal or quietness with team members can be an early indicator of active disengagement. Keep an eye on your employees — have they stopped participating in group activities? Do they appear to have experienced rifts with colleagues? Are they eating lunch alone at their desk rather than using the opportunity to stretch their legs and socialise?
Never underestimate the importance of workplace relationships. Human beings are social creatures. Work friends can keep us connected to our company and make us feel part of a tribe. When we lose our sense of belonging, we can become disengaged and disillusioned with our surroundings.
2. An Increase in the Number of Breaks
Flexibility is one of the greatest perks an organisation can offer — employees should be encouraged to work in a way that suits them. This might mean some employees take more breaks than others. Some employees might need more downtime to recuperate and perform at their most productive. There is nothing wrong with taking breaks and in fact, they can make you more engaged.
However, you should keep an eye on employees whose break patterns appear to change dramatically. If they are suddenly taking two five-minute breaks an hour, when they used to take one, this can be a clear sign of disengagement. If employees are taking more coffee, snack or cigarette breaks than usual, this isn’t a healthy sign. It could indicate a lack of interest or investment in their work — something which needs investigation.
3. Productivity and Quality of Work Has Taken a Nosedive
An obvious sign of active disengagement is a drop in productivity and quality of work. When employees stop caring, they will stop performing to their usual standard. An employee you know to be a top performer might start completing tasks late. They might suddenly need prompting by their coworkers. Discretionary effort might fall away entirely, and your disengaged employee might now be content with “good enough”. You might even notice your employee is starting to shift responsibility — claiming someone else should have completed the work, or that their work was held up by another colleague.
Line managers should be holding regular coaching conversations with their employees. During these, it should become clear if their work is suffering. The worst thing you can do is to turn a blind eye. Take immediate measures and offer assistance in any way you can — show your employee you are there for them and you want to help them perform and excel.
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4. They’re Last to Arrive and First to Leave
Actively disengaged employees make a show of wasting time. They have lost respect for their organisation and for the work they do, and they don’t keep it a secret. They will likely be the last to arrive in the morning and the first to leave.
Actively disengaged employees will be full of excuses to explain away their behaviour and they may get defensive if confronted. They are also unlikely to take responsibility for their actions in this area — so if their behaviour continues, you will have to take some serious steps to counter your employee’s sudden apathy. Which brings us to our next point…
5. There Is an Increase in Absenteeism
Presenteeism is a growing problem in the workplace, but not one that affects the actively disengaged. If anything, disengaged employees are more likely to call in sick regularly — whether or not they are actually ill.
Pay particular notice if your employee tends to regularly call in sick on a Monday or a Friday — for employees who have genuinely lost a passion for their work, a long weekend is hard to resist!
It all boils down to apathy — which reveals itself through other behaviours too. Keep track of what they are doing while at the office. If they spend a disproportionate amount of time on social media and express no interest in learning or developing work-related skills, these are sure signs your employees have mentally and emotionally checked out.
6. They Mock Other Employees’ Accomplishments
Disengaged employees — as we mentioned above — are more than just unenthusiastic. They are toxic. They will actively disparage other employees and put down their accomplishments. They have stopped exploring their own goals and aspirations with your company, so they see no value in other employees excelling. Keep an eye out for this behaviour, as it can demotivate your workforce and damage morale.
7. They Are Disparaging of Company Aims and Objectives
Your company has goals and aspirations. You have a direction you are heading in, and you want your team working hard and utilising their strengths to help you accomplish your objectives. Actively disengaged employees will not only appear blasé about your company’s goals — their attitude toward them might come across as mocking and dismissive. This is a real red flag — you want your employees excited about your company’s future, rather than putting it down at every turn.
8. They Generally Have a Bad Attitude
Actively disengaged employees will make themselves known through their bad attitude. They have stopped caring about their place at your company — they might even feel wronged by your company, so they are likely to act out. Watch out for employees who are undermining others, criticising more than contributing and participating in toxic workplace gossip.
Bad attitudes will come off as disrespectful. During your one-on-ones, if you get the impression your employee is sarcastic, defensive or belligerent, unwilling to take constructive criticism and unable to take responsibility for his or her actions, this is a real sign of a disengaged employee.
As Curt Coffman, co-author of First, Break All the Rules and Follow This Path, says: “Actively disengaged people operate from the mindset, “I’m okay. You’re not okay”. They believe that they’re doing what needs to be done, and everyone else is wrong. Negativity is like a blood clot, and actively disengaged employees sometimes clot together in groups that support and reinforce their beliefs […] An engaged person occasionally becomes negative. We all do. But an actively disengaged person finds it almost impossible to become part of the solution because they thrive on being part of the problem.”
Don’t let actively disengaged employees turn your company culture sour. Keep an eye on these warning signs and make determined steps to address the root causes of disengagement. Nobody sets out to be disengaged — chances are, your employee was satisfied and enthusiastic about their role once. With enough effort, you could course correct and wind up with an engaged employee. Sit down with your employees during your regular one-on-ones and address the situation head-on, to turn an actively disengaged employee back into a motivated, productive asset while improving engagement levels.
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