Employee engagement feels like a buzzword that is just flippantly thrown around

Many people believe it's about daily happy hours and copious amounts of free snacks in the office. However, engagement has less to do with fun and much more to do with purpose, meaning and a strong desire to perform at a high level while at work.

When the real definition of employee engagement is made known, finding you have employees who aren't connecting with their jobs becomes much more ominous.

As a leader in the organization, and the one responsible for building a team of productive and happy people, dedicated to the company mission, you spend hours reading resumes, researching backgrounds, and sitting in interview after interview.

Seeing your hard work slowly unravel may lead you to thoughts of nurturing and rehabilitating the disengaged employee ... but should it? Or is it better to absorb the turnover cost and move on with your life and your work?


  • According to Gallup's State of the American Workplace Report (SAWR), the ratio of workers who aren't connecting versus engaged employees is nearly 2-to-1, or 70% to 30%.
  • SAWR also reports lack of engagement costing U.S. workplaces over $600 billion per year!
  • Gallup's findings indicate that companies who have about nine engaged employees for every one that isn't are seeing about 150% higher EPS over their competition.
  • Conversely, companies with only about two and a half engaged employees for every one that isn't are seeing around 2% lower EPS compared to their competition.

Why They Disconnect

  • The natural passing of time (post-six months).
  • Comfortable in their role.
  • A good friend in the office leaves.
  • Life event.
  • Difficulties with others in the office.
  • Lack of ongoing training/challenges.

Signs of Disengagement

  • Sub-par work/Lying about their work
  • Lack of motivation/desire to grow
  • Not participating in group/team activities.
  • Updating their LinkedIn profile, having whispered or private discussions with friends at work often.
  • Arguing with coworkers/managers
  • Taking PTO days frequently (especially in subsequent weeks)

Levels of Disengagement

Stage One

Employees who are in the early stages of disengaging with the company or brand are considered at-risk employees. Much like a medical diagnosis, this is the best place to catch a problem. People in this stage are slightly disconnected, whether that be because of an event, or simply something you notice. At this point, it is much easier to retain employees, and generally, the cost of retention efforts will be less than that of turnover costs.

Stage Two

Employees who were not re-engaged during stage one, or who had a larger life event happen can be found in the complacent stage. In this middle tier, employees are actively disengaging from the organization. From things like not joining in the pizza luncheon to skipping out on meetings or missing deadlines here and there, you can be sure that the employee needs some extra attention and a one-on-one. At this point, it is important to analyze skill sets, impact on the company, including peers, and employee motivation. You'll want to be sure that the employee has not checked out so much that you're spending resources to save them, only to lose them in a short time.

Stage Three

Terminal disengagement. No one wants to end up here, but it happens, whether due to lack of management interference or a really unfortunate series of events. When you find a terminally disengaged employee, it would almost take a miracle to salvage that relationship. Employees at this stage tend to be combative, creating tension and dividing the office or teams at times. Additionally, their work may be incomplete, late, or unusable because of their lack of concern for the well-being of the organization and their team. Most of the time, it is more cost-effective and healthier for everyone involved to terminate the employee and rehire for that position.


Have a conversation. Discussing the issues leading to disengagement is vital to success. Remember that each employee is different and the reasons for disconnection will vary from person to person. Understand that this is a two-way street and to produce an effective outcome will require give-and-take on both sides of the table. Below are some guidelines for conversation depending on the level of disengagement.


Stage One

Have a casual, but private conversation and discuss the needs and wants of the team member. This will help you gain insight into what it will take to keep the employee and if it is worth the effort.

Be honest about noticing slight differences in performance or behavior, but be sure to come from a place of understanding and a desire to work together to make the company mission and employee goals intertwined. This may mean offering courses for development, or a tweak in responsibilities. Remember, investing in your people is investing in your company.

Stage Two

During your conversation, work through the surface issues and focus on getting to the heart of the problem. Discuss at length the struggles the employee is facing, whether it be work related or something else. If the employee is unsure of how to open up, make some small, general observations, such as, "you've been absent from our lunch n' learns lately, are you overwhelmed with work?

Be sure to dig for deeper answers when you feel a brush-off response. This is a hard conversation for both parties, but ripping off the band-aid is best to expose the problem and begin the healing process.

Stage Three

Figuring out how to navigate this conversation can be tricky but is certainly doable and necessary. Even if the relationship seems unsalvagable, getting to the core problems leading to this point is vital if you want to succeed in hiring, nurturing and engaging current and future employees.

Start with a one-on-one meeting, and if necessary, bring in other influencers in the employee's work for feedback and conflict resolution. If in the end the employee seems motivated to change and wants to be a part of the mission, it is up to management to decide if the relationship is worth saving. If the employee is not motivated, then the decision has been made, and it's time to part ways.

How to Prevent Disengagement

How to Prevent Disengagement

Studies show the first six months on the job sees the highest level of connection. After six months, there is a higher risk for disengagement, so avoid becoming lackadaisical in your coaching of these employees.

  • Lead by example and teach others to utilize and compliment each other's strong suits. Leaders and managers should focus on people's strengths.
  • Have frequent check-ins, observe people's work, their relationships, and interactions with peers and clients.
  • Assign mentors within the company. This practice will help develop relationships, purpose, and passion for work.
  • Offer opportunities for continued learning. Be it webinars, in-town conferences, out-of-town conventions, or certification programs. Showing a willingness to invest in the minds of your people will help them stay committed and focused on the organization.
  • Assign goals to each person and have measurable metrics to track so people can be aware of where they stand with their work.
  • Find opportunities for fun. While engagement isn't about happy hour and snacks, a little libation can help people feel more connected with those around them. Providing a time and place for conversation and interaction not pertaining to daily work responsibilities can help employees bond and find common interests with each other, which can lead to a stronger sense of unity and ultimately, dedication to the firm.
  • Reward people for good work ethic. Whether they just finished a big project or are in the middle of a tedious, mundane assignment, find a way to recognize people for their work and achievements. A simple candy bar during a stressful day can induce a smile and bring about feelings of happiness and mutual appreciation.
  • Promote people when they show signs of continued growth. Celebrate birthdays, graduations, certifications, and work anniversaries.

One Size Does Not Fit All

All in all, it is a unique situation each time you find yourself facing a disengaged employee. Keep notes on your interactions, your efforts, and what worked and what didn't. Make sure you dissect the cause of the problem and make any changes on your end to prevent others from disengaging for the same reasons.

Partner with our HR experts to save your disengaged employees!

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