The Actively Disengaged Employee

Employee engagement can be described in a few words -- emotional investment in the business. These are employees who are enthusiastic about their work and understand the relationship of their effort and your business success. Ironically, your disengaged employees also understand the role of emotions in the workplace. Their lack of enthusiasm is used to leverage dissatisfaction in the workforce.

At IRI Consultants, we believe that the key to employee engagement (and a positive impact on an employers’ bottom line) is having an effective leadership training system in place. While we offer online leadership training that will improve employee retention, employee satisfaction, and create a strong workplace culture, we recognize that it is not the solution for every employer.

Our belief is that consistent leadership training is a critical piece of any successful organization. We’ve compiled some information surrounding the issue of disengaged employees and how employers can focus on training their leaders to better connect with employees at all levels.

4 Signs of Disengaged Employees

While there are many reasons for disengaged employees, not every leader or every workplace knows what signs to look for to be able to combat a lack of engagement. Gallup states that around 18% of actively disengaged employees cost around $500 billion in lost productivity on an annual basis! Clearly, employers and leaders (or managers) alike need to place emphasis on engaging employees! Not only are disengaged employees costing companies in terms of lost productivity, but Forbes shared that a single disengaged employee at the average salary level costs employers almost $16,000 per year.

  1. Little productivity, or a drop in work quality

    A drop in productivity or a sudden lack of productivity from an employee is one of the most common signs of disengagement. If a previously consistent, hard-working employee is delivering less-than-quality work, frequently missing deadlines, or producing less than usual, this is a cause for concern. It’s important to take the time and effort to reach out to an employee privately, as this behavior change could be a result of their home life, personal struggles, or even a separate issue within their workplace.

    Empathy and appropriate care are necessary when discussing what may be the cause of this changed behavior. Leaders need the soft skills necessary to engage with employees and to connect and communicate with other team members. Often times, it may be as simple as an increase in recognition and appreciation shown to employees
  2. Frequently late or significant increase in absences

    Any employee who is often showing up late to work (especially if this is new behavior) or taking multiple days off at a time could be dealing with some issues outside of the office. Employees who are a little late on a regular basis may lack time management skills or be struggling with something else entirely. However, this behavior, combined with a lack of remorse or concern, especially if combined with negative behavior changes, is a telltale sign of a disengaged employee. Engaged employees make work a priority and show up consistently. As Forbes explained, “organizations should look at absenteeism as an opportunity to have a caring dialogue and ask, “What’s going on?” Maybe it is just a cold, or maybe there is something more.”
  3. Withdrawal from new opportunities, avoids team participation

    If an employee suddenly starts withdrawing from team activities or from opportunities to grow and learn, this could be a sign they are becoming disengaged. Simply opting out of some opportunities does not necessarily mean this employee is actively disengaged. It takes a leader or manager who is paying attention to their team members, actively working on communication skills, and looking for opportunities to further connect with employees to notice when employees’ behavior changes. Additionally, leaders need to be able to act. Simply being aware of disengaged employees will not make an impact on overall workplace culture or employee engagement and retention levels.
  4. Whispers of dissatisfaction and rumors of unionization from actively disengaged employees 

    Actively disengaged employees work hard at undermining the business by getting others to share in their discontent. These are your employees who whisper in co-worker ears, "This is a lousy place to work. Let's talk to the union rep."  

    The difference between the not engaged versus the actively disengaged employee is that the latter intentionally works to spread dissatisfaction among other employees. The not engaged is just disinterested in the job for some reason.

    The 2014 Gallup annual survey of U.S. workers found that 51 percent were not engaged, while 17.5 percent of employees were actively disengaged. Out of every 100 people, there are over half giving minimal effort and 18 actively trying to disrupt operations. The 18 employees are the ones most likely telling others that they need a union. They make union avoidance more difficult because they are surreptitious.
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Staying Away from the Dark Side

It is tempting to concentrate employee communications on the trouble-makers rather than the 31 percent who support the business. Yet the engaged employees are the front line defense against unionization because they see value in their work and appreciate their employer. They have the most influence on co-workers when it comes to stopping the not engaged from going to the dark side of active disengagement.

When an actively disengaged employee suggests unionizing to an engaged employee, the response is likely to be "We don't need a union because the company treats us fairly." Positive employee relations trump the actively disengaged and can bring the not engaged back into the fold. That is why Union Proof, Projections, Inc. and A Better Leader work together. The first focuses on deflecting unions through information; the second concentrates on developing connections between employers and employees; and the third offers manager training.

Bottom line: actively disengaged employees can put a large damper on your business. Giving them less of a voice will help your organization stay union-free and flourish. 

Bridging the Gap Between Poor Leadership and Disengaged Employees

A leadership consulting firm found that 57% of employees who left their position in 2019, did so specifically because of issues with their boss or manager. It's important to note “poor leadership” does not necessarily mean managers or leaders who aren’t engaged or trying their best. It does, however, mean that they may simply need additional guidance and support to be able to connect with employees and build a strong culture. We have found that there is a significant link between leadership training and employee engagement. Leaders who embody the values of an organization and are invested in, and advocate for, the success of said organization, are going to be significantly more successful in terms of engaging employees and helping to impact the bottom line positively.

Ultimately, poor leadership can have staggering effects on any business. Between a lack of employee motivation, a drop in productivity due to a lack of recognition or appreciation, and the shocking cost of lost productivity, companies cannot afford to have ineffective leaders. Disengaged employees are only one of the many detrimental consequences of poor leadership.

Leadership training from IRI Consultants can be the catalyst your organization needs to achieve increased employee engagement levels, reduced employee retention, and heightened employee experience. We focus on connection, motivation, and behavioral change at a cultural level in order to support your organization and create consistent leadership training that works. 

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About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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