Beyond Disengaged: The Employees You Should Be Worried About

Since the Great Recession, employee engagement has become a hot topic in the business world. Over the last five years, research has shown that everyone is struggling with their engagement levels, and even top executives aren’t immune. A Fortune 500 executive told a Forbes reporter, “I am burned out and tired of the nonsense… I am not inspired to put in the extra hours – as I don’t have any real incentive. I just do my job well, play the political game, smile, and get my check.”

That type of disengagement isn’t good for anyone, whether an executive, administrative assistant, employer, or employee, but it shouldn’t be your biggest worry. There is another level of engagement – known as actively disengaged – that goes beyond the usual lack of passion found in unmotivated workers. This mindset is toxic and, if left unchecked, could spread and destroy your entire business.

America’s Workforce Divided
Every few years, Gallup releases their State of the American Workplace report. This year’s report found that the approximately 100 million full-time workers in the U.S. are stuck in a 30/50/20 split. Those that are engaged and inspired at work total about 30 million, or 30% of the workforce. Workers who are just simply present at work and disengaged make up 50% at 50 million. The other 20% are the actively disengaged – 20 million employees coming to work each day and purposefully spreading their dissatisfaction.

The Face of the Enemy
That 20% is your company’s worst enemy. Your actively disengaged employees could devastate your workplace from the inside out, so it’s important that you recognize which workers fall into this category. As Gallup’s research points out, “actively disengaged employees are more or less out to damage their company. They monopolize managers’ time; have more on-the-job accidents; account for more quality defects; contribute to ‘shrinkage,’ as theft is called; are sicker; miss more days; and quit at a higher rate than engaged employees do. Whatever the engaged do — such as solving problems, innovating, and creating new customers — the actively disengaged try to undo.” That’s a description that would send a shiver down the spine of even the most optimistic business leader.

Anyone can get to the point of being actively disengaged, but research highlighted in the State of the American Workplace report shows that there are some statistically significant commonalities. Sales workers, installation or repair workers, service workers, transportation workers, and manufacturing or production workers are the most likely to be actively disengaged. Men have a 2% greater likelihood of falling into this mindset than women. Education also plays a role, since “those with higher levels of education were slightly less likely to be actively disengaged than those with a high school diploma, technical/vocation training, or some college.” And a generational significance was found as well, with nearly one out of four Baby Boomers being actively disengaged – the highest percentage out of all the generations.

Your Business Pays the Price
The implications of having actively disengaged workers within your walls and walking your halls are huge. The State of Human Capital report from McKinsey & Company reported that “in the U.S., it’s estimated that demotivated and actively disengaged employees cost the economy up to $355 billion annually in lost productivity.” That’s just the loss from decreased productivity. Gallup’s research found that, overall, active disengagement is “costing the U.S. an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually.”

Those are huge numbers, and they completely validate what so many are now saying about the importance of employee engagement. A recent article from the Harvard Business Review pointed out that “study after study shows that employee engagement, an index of bringing one’s best and full self to work, is not just an organizational nicety. It is a business imperative, linked to a number of performance outcomes, including profitability, customer satisfaction and turnover.” And the report from McKinsey & Company stated that “higher levels of engagement mean more discretionary effort, which translates into better business performance, improved customer satisfaction, greater revenue growth, and quicker speed to market – not to mention less absenteeism and fewer quality defects.” It also highlighted that “studies show that companies with high levels of engagement outperform the total stock market index.”

The Necessity of Going on the Offensive
With all of those critical aspects of business, and even the very success of your company on the line, you can’t let the actively disengaged continue undeterred. But this group of employees requires its own unique, proactive game plan. First, you have to understand that happy workers aren’t necessarily engaged workers. Research from Gallup shows that “engaged employees have well-defined roles in the organization, make strong contributions, are actively connected to their larger team and organization, and are continuously progressing.” Based on that definition of what engagement looks like and the previous description of the actively disengaged’s behavior, you should be able to quickly pick out the workers that pose the greatest threat to your business. Chances are, they have probably already identified themselves.

Even with their destructive approach, you still owe it to them and yourself to find out why they are so disengaged and opposed to the company. A one-on-one approach is best – this is not the place for group discussions or company-wide pep talks – and you will most likely want to involve your HR experts. If there has been a lack of communication in the past, there is always the possibility that the employer and employee can find common ground and begin the process of restoration. However, often times, the actively disengaged employee has developed such a dislike and distrust of the company that the best option for everyone involved is for them to leave. Whatever gap is left due their departure will be far less damaging than allowing the discord to spread and infect even your best employees.

No workplace is perfect, and it’s probably unrealistic to expect 100% of the workforce to be fully engaged. But you have too much to lose to let the bottom 20% of your employees pollute the other 80%. Taking the steps now to identify and deal with the actively disengaged within your business will be a major factor in ensuring your success in the years to come.

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4 Responses to Beyond Disengaged: The Employees You Should Be Worried About

  1. Michael Torchalski August 6, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    Very interesting.

    In my experience, employers can identify the “actively disengaged” by holding staff accountable with: (1) detailed position desciptions; (ii) adherence to standardized forms and procedures; (iii) timekeeping systems; (iv) benchmarks for production and/or quality; and (v) periodic reviews as to compliance with the foreoging.

    To prevent an employee from becoming “actively disengaged” it is important to recognize a job well done, and to pass along compliments received from clients / customers, and to pay personnel fairly and commensurately with the industry and maret area, by reference to officially published (BLS) tables.

    Owners should realize that key employees not only represent a business, they are indeed extensions of the owner, and enable owners to realize their business goals.

  2. Bruce Martin August 6, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    I am afraid that your article is giving fuel to the problem that created the disengagement in the first place. I would start with the premise that managers create disengagement and that managers need to make adjustments.
    Certainly some employees have a bad attitude that for some external reason won’t change. They need to be removed for sure, but that is after efforts have been made by management.
    The other issue I have is the suggestion that each workplace is divided into 30/50/20. I suspect that the whole marketplace is, and each business is slanted to one of those percentages. i.e. business 1 is 75% engaged and business 2 is 75% disengaged and the whole nets to the averages quoted.If that is right, getting rid of the bulk is no answer for those companies contributing to the negative.

  3. Hannah R August 7, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    The “lack of incentive” issue can spiral into a more toxic form of disengagement quickly–when an organization is built around team and individual goals and yet there’s no consequence, positive or negative, for meeting, exceeding, or failing those goals, disengagement is rarely far behind. The same holds true for a purely subjective approach to rewards and recognition; the sense of unfairness in what is being rewarded and how can spread to cripple a team.

    As managers leading teams, it’s crucial to understand what motivates our employees (and do so regularly and consistently), and to also have the tough conversations about performance when goals are not met. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating an environment where not caring and not holding each other accountable is commonplace.

  4. JIm Nielsen August 14, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    I agree with Bruce Martin’s reply that for a company to be truly successful it must start at the top and filter down through every level. Any company is only as good as it weakest links as you can see by the huge loss to the economy.

    Managers need to be trained, better yet modeled by true leaders and not those who schmooze their way to the top. If all levels of managers down to team leaders would take the time to do a proper review on a monthly or quarterly basis and allow their subordinates to not just vent but provide solutions and ideas to make for a better work environment, that kind of empowerment offers hope and will affect change.

    The perfect CEO or manager or team leader will make himself available and listen to the least under him. He will be approachable. In the case of the those employees who continue to spread discord it is past due the time in this kind of process to help them find a better place to work for them.

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