Suzanne Lucas

How to Spot — and Address — Employee Disengagement

Employee engagement is sure to be at the forefront of any employer’s mind, but how often do you hear someone talking about employee disengagement? You can have a great work environment, but even if 90 percent of your employees are happy and engaged, there are bound to be a few stragglers.

Now, some employers think that one or two unhappy employees won’t have that big of an impact on their business. But even if disengaged employees are the minority, their managers and co-workers still have to pick up the slack for them, bringing down the productivity of the entire office.

Here’s how to spot a disengaged employee — and how to handle the situation.

3 Telltale Signs of Employee Disengagement

What does disengagement look like? While everyone has their off days, sustained patterns of the following three symptoms should motivate you to act.

  1. Low productivity. This is often a dead giveaway for disengagement. Yes, it’s possible that an employee simply lacks the right skills or needs training. But if you don’t see a change, consider that they might simply be disengaged.
  2. Irresponsible behavior. Disengaged employees might not take their schedules seriously, forget deadlines, deliver sloppy work or disclose confidential information. An employee who’s motivated and wants the business to succeed won’t do any of this on a regular basis. Naturally, one missed deadline isn’t a sign of disengagement — but multiple certainly can be.
  3. A change in temperament. If an employee who is normally happy and hardworking gradually becomes sullen and isolated, the shift may be a sign of disengagement.

How to Fix the Problem

When we’re talking about a single employee with low morale, a general program or management training course alone isn’t likely to resolve the issue. Instead, you need to work with the individual to find out what’s going on and determine whether you can help them reengage with their work.

To start, think about what’s changed. If the employee’s morale used to be great, consider what could have caused their disengagement.

  • The workload is too heavy. Is this person overwhelmed? Dumping a huge amount of work on even the most committed employee can burn them out. This often happens as businesses grow or as people leave without being replaced. Talk to the employee about whether their workload is reasonable.
  • The work is too easy. This may seem counterintuitive — you might think people would be happy to have an easy job, but most employees want growth and development. Someone who’s been in the same position for a while and has mastered the work may become disengaged because there’s no challenge anymore. Try to spice up their workload by adding new responsibilities.
  • There’s an outside problem. Is the employee going through a divorce? Did their mother just die? Have they been sick? While these are things outside of your control, they can cause a drop in engagement. Naturally, you can’t solve these problems yourself, but you can provide support. For health-related problems, employees may be eligible for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protection and not even know it. Make sure the employee knows they can contact the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) or approach you directly to find help. Usually, these periods of disengagement are temporary, and you don’t want to lose a typically great employee because they had a temporary outside issue.
  • The employee is in an unsafe working environment. Is someone else at the office determined to destroy this person’s career? This can be hard to spot, as bullies have been practicing their stealth techniques since second grade. Anyone can be a bully, from the employee’s boss to their direct report. Beyond normal bullying, sexual, racial, disability or any other form of illegal harassment can devastate an employee, and that makes it difficult to stay focused and engaged at work. Remember that the company is liable for any discrimination based on a protected characteristic. Harassed or bullied employees may be scared to make a complaint, so be prepared to rely on other tools to identify and end behavior that makes others feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

Bad employee morale is a tricky thing to fix, but if you can spot disengagement at the beginning, you have a much better chance. Don’t forget that a few cases of disengagement here and there could signal a larger shift in the workplace — so when you see that something is wrong, even with just one employee, the entire office is relying on you to help maintain the happiness and health your workforce.

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