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Mike Friend

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Can you afford to ignore your disengaged employees?


We often hear about how to better engage with employees, but what about the actively disengaged employee? Don’t stick your head in the sand, says Mike Friend.

Tackling the drivers of both engagement and disengagement is critical to achieving high performance. The concepts of the service profit chain as proposed by Heskett, Sasser and Schlesinger in 1997 continue to resonate strongly with organisations interested in understanding the link between employee engagement and business performance. By addressing service delivery systems and raising employee engagement the model infers that organisations will generate greater customer satisfaction, loyalty, and ultimately better business performance. Upon this and other similar concepts has been based the whole employee engagement industry. Simply put, engagement matters and increasing the motivation and commitment of employees has a significant positive impact on business performance.

Harris Interactive continues to be a strong advocate of the service profit chain – indeed an increasing proportion of our research now focuses on the linkages between employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Nevertheless it has become apparent from surveys conducted in the past 18 months that whilst the rate of employee engagement has continued to rise in proportion to the level of investment, the proportion of disengaged employees in these same organisations has remained largely constant.

Clearly, the interventions designed to address engagement at many organisations are having great success in drawing the ‘neutrals’ up into the ‘engaged’ group, however the effectiveness of these interventions has been less successful with 15% of employees that we would typically describe as being actively disengaged.
That this is a little reported fact is due in large part to the desire of organisations to focus their internal communications on employee ‘engagement’ rather than the more negative issue of dissatisfaction and disengagement. However, the reasons for the lack of progress with disengaged employees are complex. These include;

  • Organisations are resigned to the fact that they cannot meet the expectations of all employees and it is therefore inevitable that there will always be employees that will never be engaged or committed
  • Organisations balance the cost of investment with the return and come to the conclusion that investing 80% of their resources on winning over the 20% of employees that are disengaged is not worth the outlay in time and resources
  • Some organisations not only focus exclusively on growing the engagement number to the exclusion of all else, they also link bonuses and incentives to achieving certain engagement targets
  • Many organisations accept significant rates of voluntary turnover amongst their employees and believe it is beneficial to have a regular stream of new blood into the organisation
  • One of the most frequently made assumptions is that employee attrition is highest amongst disengaged employees. In fact, nearly 50% of disengaged employees don’t leave organisations at all
  • The vision and values of the organisation fail to resonate with all employees, indeed may even increase levels of cynicism and alienation. This is becoming evident where organisations fail to live up to their green credentials or corporate social responsibility

It might be asked who actually has the luxury of being disengaged in this economy? With hiring freezes still in force, a sluggish economy and talk of a double-dip recession yet to ease, the chances of simply quitting your job and finding another one that pays better is unlikely for the vast majority.

The reality is that having a job should be motivation enough to get up, get dressed and go to work for a living – for now. When the job market eases again as it surely will sooner rather than later, employers who have failed to address disengagement amongst their employees will need to be wary of the employee exodus that may follow. Employers prepared to lose large numbers of their employees in a healthy economy bank on an equal and opposite effect – namely the CV tsunami – the flood of applicants looking for new careers in their organisation. However, retaining existing employees is often cheaper than hiring and training new employees.

The challenge for organisations is to revisit some, if not all, of their previously held assumptions around disengagement and its impact on the organisation. Is it disengaged employees that are leaving the organisation, or is it disengaged employees that are driving better performing employees to seek careers elsewhere? Are employees actively or passively disengaged and in what ways is this manifesting itself in the organisation?

Ultimately the question to ask is: is your employee disengagement strategy is helping you to become a high performance organisation?

Mike Friend is the global head of employee research at Harris Interactive. He can be reached at [email protected] or +44 (0)208 263 5447.

8 Responses

  1. Employee engagement

    Stillwater – I’ll tell your company if you’ll tell mine!!

  2. Disengaged but still working
    I am a semi-disengaged employee but I can see 100% coming right at me!

    Working in a post merger environment brings so many opportunities for change and growth but also carries along the baggage of those who resist all efforts because ‘that’s now how we did it before’. I’m a post merger starter so I have none of the hang ups but it can be hugely frustrating to see the foot dragging and line drawing that goes on every day. The back biting and petty squabbles over the slightest thing become draining – and I find myself fast approaching the point where I will simply give up and join the sulkers.

    I am usually an enthusiastic worker – I genuinely do love working for my living and being a valid link in a nice shiny chain. It is crucifying to feel the shine being scrubbed off my job.

    Disengagement is a huge issue that affects not just the segregated employee but all those about them who carry the extra tasks and over-spill jobs while listening to the grumping and harping, sapping even their best intentions. If one employee is disengaged, you can effectively count on three or four others who will be intermittently disengaged by the pressure of putting up with them. This can domino into a massively unhappy department where ALL employees drift from engagement, reducing productivity, inflating sickness and even losing valuable employees and their skills when they decide to cut their losses.

    Time and effort spent re-engaging that one employee will reap massive rewards as the surrounding sufferers will feel the benefit and return that effort to the employer.

    Now, could someone please tell my company that???!!

  3. Disengagment
    Will some one please explain to me how if employee disengagment has nothing to do with employee imcompetenance or attitude we have 38 very engaged employees and one who resists all attempts to “engage” him?

    We do not have a blame culture. We have a strong anti – bullying policy. I do not tolerate bullying at any level.
    We have strong training programmes. Employees are involved in Health and Safety and Team Leaders are an important part of writing risk assessments and safe working practices. They have been heavily involved in the evolution of our quality systems.

    We have low turn over in staff. We have people who have been here thirty years. Team leaders are involved in the recriutmnet proceess for their department after all they have to work with them.

    Visitors comment on how relaxed and calm the atmosphere is here and how often they hear laughter and singing on the factory floor. We must be doing something right but ………………

    There is one man, who since he started to work here in 2005 has resisited training and then complained that he was not promoted to a higher grade. I booked him on a course which mean travelling about thirty miles
    using the pool car. He would not give me a copy of his driving licence so that I could add him to the insurance and authorise him to drive the car. As a result he did not do the training. He remains an operator while complaining that he should be a setter. No one doubts that he would be capable of doing the job but he will not co-operate with training.

    I have spent endless hours talking to him trying to get to the bottom of it and he just feels he doesn’t need training. He can do anything and he works harder than any one else in the factory. This from a man who has the worst attendance record in the company. I won’t bore you with the details of how long and hard we have tried to sort out his attendance. He complained about working shifts so the Factory Manager decided it would help if he worked permanent day shift. He was asked if he would be happier doing this. He said he would and after two months he was complaining that he prefered night shift.

    The guys in the factory negotiated an early start on a Friday so that they could finish at lunch time. This man then developed a problem with Fridays. He told me in a meeting that if he didn’t get much sleep on a Thursday after a night out an early start on a Friday wasn’t going happen. His repeated absences put so much pressure on his hard working colleagues that they have now lost all patience with him. In fact most of them don’t want to work with him. We have many times changed employee’s working hours to accomodate personal or family problems so we changed his start time on a Friday and after a few weeks he was complaining about having a later finish on than his mates. He then was absence two Fridays in a row and did not even bother to call in. He is now on a final warning. I have run out of patience. There are some people you cannot help. The majority of our workers are hard working and committed empoyees who take a pride in their work and this man has had every oportunity to change and adapt.

  4. From a Disengaged Employee!

    I can only speak from my own point of view as a disengaged employee myself!! I still have the same excellent appriasal reviews I have always had, I still do the same amount of work, I still manage and support my team. I have simply been alienated by what I see going on around me. Unethical behaviour, bullying, insecure employees consolidating their own positions within the company by "stepping on" the reputations of others, staff with genuine illnesses pushed to breaking point by interviews where they are bullied by their managers. I think there are plenty of people like me, who for the sake of their own self respect do not wish to do anything less than 100% of their job. Were the Directors willing to address any of the issues, I would be front and centre to help. As it is, I am simply biding my time – and I’m sure I am far from being the only one!

  5. We vs They !

    "The challenge for organisations is to revisit some, if not all, of their previously held assumptions around disengagement and its impact on the organisation."

    Let’s get serious – Revisiting "assumptions" ?. Do we need a lesson on where the mother of all problems rests.

    Before we jump into the trench and start shooting down the square pegs in round holes, it is only fair to analyse if there have been any "heads" in the sand, in the first place? 

    Professionalism in managers calls for competency in leadership accountability. What this boils down to is doing what it take to inspire people to give their best. To condone and whine that your people are disengaged and costing the company, including driving "engaged" people out the door is an act that, in my book, falls in the category of sheer leadership incompetence. 

    I still believe, "there are no bad employees only bad leaders!" 

    I am in full agreement with the measures stated by John. But, does it work bothways – managing up. 

    I have come across many instances where competent and good performers became demoralised, demotivated and even frustrated from doing their job. The eventual fallout is apathy and ROAD (retired on active duty!). Also, what do you do when the source of the disengagement has to do with strategic misallignment – lack of appropriate systems or resources. Don’t go far – just ask Strategic HR/OD practitioners if they have ever been "there". How many view the absence of (SMART) KPIs to performance management as a source of "disengagement".   

    I have always carried a burning curiosity in tracing people’s career progression. Hence, I often wonder what drives someone to impress his best, get’s selected, receives reward in wages for acceptable or engaged results, get’s further recognition of being confirmed on the job, is rewarded with annual increment, year in and year out. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, he becomes "disengaged", out of his own free volition. It does not make sense. Something must have happened along the way and did not get fixed right. Invariably, it has all to do with decision calls.          

    How did the company end up with square pegs?. Is the fault of selection, talent placement/development or simply a case of "ostrich" leadership. Authentic leaders with integrity will know the intrinsic value of their accountability to team’s performance without being told through their KPI. That’s the ultimate pinnacle of leadeship.       

    I may be wrong in assuming an uneasy impression that a disengaged workforce has nothing but to do with employee incompetence and attitude. And, I cannot fathomise that disengaged people are the reason for the "push’ in turnover of good performers. Without substantiated evidence, this is a seriously flawed path to assume and sounds like the ‘we vs they’ perfect storm in causing further downward spiral to the team-workplace culture. 

    The biggest link and opportunity for closing the "engagement" gap lies in introspecting the internal "system" and this requires, what Bill Collins calls, level 5 leadership at the apex.      


  6. An unengaged member of your staff ? your move!

    Better check first what you mean by ‘engaged, You think you want real engagement ? Can you handle that group of committed enthusiastic  people who eat up the work as fast as you give it them ? Can you make sure you are not wasting their time or skills ? Are they working at your high pace or are they copying you. 

    The steps are simple in theory: Find the ones who are disengaged; Find out why and what or who has caused it, Remove the problems , making it clear that both have to contribute to that  removal: Check progress; Give one warning if necessary; Take action, which could mean giving more help or one extension of the recovery period, or getting rid of the individual legally but firmly. You can’t allow a slacker at any time but especially at times like these as it is not fair on those who are pulling their weight. Your well meant tolerance may easily cause a general infection. Those who are already ‘engaged’ will probably ask why it took you so long and you will have to explain why you let it happen. Even if you are running a charity you cannot afford passengers, at any level in the business. If you are going to tigfhten things up start with the top management – an execution there reminds the whole work-force that no-one is indispensible. .

    Of course its more difficult in practice but once you have done the first ones it will be easier to do any others who have not understood the message – ‘Shape up or get out and make room for someone who values the job more’


  7. Disengaged employees

    "The reality is that having a job should be motivation enough to get up, get dressed and go to work for a living – for now."

    That’s precisely the attitude that leads to greater disengagement. Just because the economy is tough now with high relatively high unemployment numbers is no excuse to pull out this tired line. Employees are giving much more now, covering for those who have been let go. Now is the time to increase those activities that contribute to engagement, especially specific, timely employee recognition that shows your employees just how much you do appreciate them and their efforts.

  8. Disengaged employees
    The basic problem is that we are too soft on the disengaged, who are invariably poor performers.
    Attempts to get them to improve should be taken but dismissal (legally conducted) is often best for both the individual, who may well be a square peg in a round hole, and the organisation.
    The risk is that the disengaged can have loud voices and therefore a detrimental effect on their colleagues


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