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Recognizing the Signs of Disengaged Employees

July 20, 2020 Leadership
By Dom Nicastro

The number of employees who are "actively disengaged" is at an all-time low, according to research by Gallup. The same report found employee engagement is at an all-time high.

Everything’s perfect in the workplace? Not quite. Organizations still need to be actively working on watching for signs of disengaged employees, especially during times like a health crisis where external stressors can affect employees' state of mind.

What Is a Disengaged Employee?

A disengaged employee is someone who is not fully committed to the company, the team’s success and lacks enthusiasm and excitement about making a positive impact and difference at work, according to Carla Yudhishthu, VP of people operations at Mammoth HR and ThinkHR. “I have worked with Gallup in my past and believe strongly in the value of engagement when it comes to impact at work and driving results leading to business success,” she said. “When these things drop off, leaders have to question why.”

Gallup defines “actively disengaged” employees as those who have “miserable work experiences and spread their unhappiness to their colleagues.” What does that actually look like in the workplace? What signs can you look for in spotting these disengaged employees?

Lack of Passion in Company Mission

Melissa Nytko, MSW, LCSW, an independent social worker who works with companies on employee burnout and disengagement, said the most prevalent signs of employee disengagement in the workplace include low productivity, increased absenteeism, negative attitude and withdrawing socially. “The reasons why these are signs of disengagement, is because these are not typical or expected behaviors in a hired employee,” Nytko said. “Employees who experience high levels of stress and lack social connections tend to have higher absenteeism. They are more prone to illness, increased irritability and have low energy.”

A disengaged employee no longer actively pursues the mission or vision of the company, and, perhaps, their own values don’t connect with the values of the organization. “The longer an employee experiences disengagement the more money a company can lose due to low productivity,” she said.

Poor Collaboration Patterns

Yudhishthu said obvious signs of a disengaged employee include showing up late to meetings, missing meetings and missing deadlines on work commitments. Less obvious signs, she said, can be things such as a little less participation in team meetings and other work meetings or a drop in quality of work.

There are sure to be differences in the ways that employees show their disengagement, according to HR expert Melissa Cadwallader, MBA, PHR, who works in HR at ZenBusiness. “However,” she said, “the widely recognized signs include a drop in the quality of work, lack of communication with fellow workers and failure to meet deadlines. Such signs may be recognized if the employees feel like their contributions aren't recognized or valued.”

Silence, Apathy, Complacency

For certain, these are not great qualities in most people, much less employees. Carlos Castelán, managing director of The Navio Group, which consults businesses on workplace engagement, said there are dozens of ways to spot a disengaged employee. Among them, he highlights:

  • Having a manager they can’t stand.
  • Employees who are disengaged will often withdraw from any non-necessary conversations or activities. They also tend to only do the minimum to get by.
  • One prominent sign of disengagement is silence: on team calls, over email or in missed meetings altogether.
  • Apathy or lack of commitment.
  • Absenteeism. Really engaged employees will find a way to be at work.
  • Complacency, a decline in work quality.
  • Missed deadlines, disinterest in participating.
  • Failure to be a team player and help others.
  • Lack of enthusiasm and lack of initiative.

“Managers and HR teams should be on the lookout for signs of disengagement from their employees, which can be assessed in one-to-one conversations, annual employee surveys, etc. to spot potential risk,” Castelán added. “One way for management can get ahead of this is to have regular check-ins with employees to ensure they’re engaged and working toward their goals as well as providing them with regular pay raises before they have to ask.”

Disengagement Is Likely Gradual

A disengaged employee will not be prepared to go above and beyond for the delivery of high-quality work, according to Cadwallader.  “They will show a lack of motivation and enthusiasm for the products or services offered by the business,” she added. “The lack of engagement might not always be obvious.”

However, she said, it will gradually erode and have a negative impact on the business if it isn't dealt with. The cause of this should be reviewed. The employee should not be made to feel attacked if there is a wider systemic problem in play.

Lack of Developmental Pursuit

A lack of interest in developmental opportunities can also be a sign that can be overlooked, according to Yudhishthu. “Additionally, less or no participation in "optional" work events, such as happy hours (virtual) and informational sessions, could also be a sign,” she said.

The levels of engagement might also fall away if workers aren't given opportunities for advancement and progression. “There's a good chance that disengaged employees will look for other employment opportunities,” Cadwallader added.

Tim Reitsma, co-founder of People Managing People, agreed one tell-tale sign of a disengaged employee is that they stop looking for opportunities to grow. Instead of seeking challenges, they avoid adding value to new opportunities. “Stagnation is a sign of disengagement because it's the opposite of what you'd see in an engaged employee,” Reitsma added. “The engaged one seeks new ways to grow and learn at work to keep things interesting. On the other hand, stagnation shows a lack of desire to go above the bare minimum.”

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