How to Bring Actively Disengaged Employees Back Into the Fold


Have you assessed the impact of actively disengaged employees on your organization? In this article, employee disengagement takes center stage, as we discuss what an actively disengaged employee looks like and tips from industry experts on how to help the actively disengaged segment of your workforce.

Workforce engagement is a top priority in most organizations, but are you keeping an eye out for actively disengaged employees as well?

Too often, studies, reports, and analyses focus only on employee engagementOpens a new window – i.e., those who are fully/actively engaged in the workplace. But engaged and disengaged isn’t always a clear binary. Ideally, organizations should consider three categories: engaged employees, those who aren’t engaged/are indifferent, and those employees who are actively disengaged.

Today, we turn the spotlight on the actively disengaged segment of your workforce. Gallup data collected over three years suggests that 18% of the workforceOpens a new window comprises actively disengaged employees. And this is from a seminal study covering 6.5 million respondents in 155 countries. So, how do you address potential disengagement and inspire a sense of community and belonging among these workers?

To explore this further, we spoke to Maya SmallwoodOpens a new window (EY Global PAS employee experience leader and EY Americas change & learning solutions leader), Dorothy DaltonOpens a new window (CEO of 3Plus International), and Jason LauritsenOpens a new window (speaker, author, and employee engagement expert).

Learn More:Opens a new window noopener” title=”Opens a new window” target=”_blank” target=”_blank”> 5 Industry Experts on How to Measure Employee Engagement Effectively in 2020Opens a new window

Who Is an Actively Disengaged Employee?

To prevent disengagement, companies must first distinguish between employees who aren’t sufficiently engaged and those who are actively disengaged.

An actively disengaged employee will be vocal about their dissatisfaction with working conditions. This dissatisfaction is likely to impact their performance and attitude towards work. They may even discuss their negative perceptions with colleagues, personal/professional networks, and social media.

Actively disengaged employees are prime candidates for attrition. They may be holding on to the job in the absence of a better opportunity or just for its perks. While they are at your company, they could dent your employer brand reputation, sour workplace relationships, and bring down the overall morale of their teams.

“When we receive (and internalize) signals that communicate that we don’t belong, aren’t being listened to and aren’t free to act, if the positive signals are overpowered by the negative ones, disengagement or even alienation follow,” says Smallwood.

Is it possible to curb this impact by preventing disengagement and, in some cases, actively converting back this segment to engaged employees?

Can You Change Actively Disengaged Employees to Engaged Employees?

Lauritsen believes that actively disengaged employees cannot be changed to engaged employees at all. “An actively disengaged employee, one who is both disengaged and also proactively working against your efforts to engage others, didn’t become that way overnight. It often takes a change of job to begin undoing the damage done.”

According to him, “The only strategy to combat active disengagement is to prevent it in the first place.”

However, Smallwood’s opinion differs: “We know from multidisciplinary research on human behavior change that it is possible to shift negative sentiment, though it is not easy, and is best done by using a targeted combination of social, environmental and individual interventions that improve motivation quality and ability.”

One of the biggest reasons for disengagement is that an employee simply isn’t suited to the job. This doesn’t mean that they are not talented – the job role is simply out of sync with the worker’s current expectations and aspirations. Another reason could be that organizational leadership and culture have failed the employee.

“I genuinely think that all employees want to do a job they like (if not love) and be rewarded and recognized for their contribution. I have seen a situation where changes to a process and even a change of a leader or supervisor can make a huge difference to team morale,” said Dalton, also agreeing that it may be worth the effort to bring back a disengaged employee from the dark side.

And this challenge is compounded when the employee doesn’t receive enough motivation, recognition, or career growth.

Learn More: How to Engage Employees in 2020 – 10 Impactful SolutionsOpens a new window

Initiating the Change: Tips on Preventing Active Disengagement and Managing It

Before an employer completely gives up on the actively disengaged segment of their workforce, there are several measures that they can take. The following tips could help to inspire confidence and loyalty in potentially actively disengaged employees, making sure that their frustrations aren’t intensified any further.

1. Get the basics right with grassroots-to-top-rung communication

Communication ties the entire organization together. Particularly at the growth stage, communication can prevent company veterans from feeling disconnected from team leaders and the C-suite.

To interact with the actively disengaged segment of your workforce, consider investing in a 360-degree communication operating system like InvolveSoftOpens a new window . It combines workplace conversations with the employee experience.

Even the most disengaged employees can observe how their peers operate, what the latest news in the organization is, and interact with other colleagues to build a sense of community. This could help them reignite the spark and move up from actively disengaged toward some level of engagement.

2. Measure your workplace experience to understand the impact of physical factors

An HBR surveyOpens a new window of 1,600 employees revealed surprising findings: air quality (58%), comfortable lighting (50%), water quality (41%), and temperatures (34%) were the four things employees want the most. Companies need to consider how these physical factors shape workplace experiences if they are to address actively disengaged employees.

“The worst thing to do would be to work on ‘engagement’ in isolation. Instead, move the needle with disengaged employees by changing their experience at work holistically,” agreed Smallwood. WPA’s workplace experience calculatorOpens a new window is a useful tool to achieve this, giving you a picture of how tangible and intangible factors impact employee experience. With this data, you can work toward modifying the workplace experience to make it more satisfying for employees.

3. Measure team fitness and restructure keeping in mind employee personalities

Interpersonal dynamics in a team often contribute to an employee’s dissatisfaction levels. To correct this, consider using a team fitness tool to assess the performance of your teams and use the data to restructure teams if necessary. The fitness assessment tool can help you continue to monitor actively disengaged employees and their progress.

“When we receive and internalize signals that communicate that we don’t belong or aren’t being listened to, disengagement or even alienation will follow,” warned Smallwood. A team fitness tool like the one by K&Co.Opens a new window can help you monitor how employees feel in their newly established team structure. The tool highlights performance areas, gives you custom team-building exercises, and tracks progress over time.

4. Listen to the voice of the employee and rejig hiring processes

Dalton recommends that companies use tech to direct leadership efforts toward listening to the voices of actively disengaged employees. “Technology can take on time-consuming work, freeing up the time of leaders and HR professionals to deal with the more important stuff – like talking to employees and being present. There is no replacement for direct contact,” she said.

Embed two-way communication in every employee event using tools like PigeonholeOpens a new window . Actively disengaged employees can share their opinions anonymously and get a real-time answer. Finally, the data you collect should inform future hiring decisions, so that candidates may be hired for their cultural fit.

Learn More: 5 Must-Have Remote Work Tools to Use After COVID-19: Experts EditionOpens a new window

Why You Can’t Afford to Ignore Your Actively Disengaged Employees

When it comes to disengagement, prevention is infinitely better than cure. Not only does it bring down individual performance, but it can also infect the morale and attitude of others.

Lauritsen shared with us an alarming anecdote. “One CEO who I advise was slow to confront an actively disengaged member of his leadership team. By the time he finally took action, he lost almost one-fourth of his staff to turnover (some his choice, some not). Allowing active disengagement can literally ruin your culture,” he said.

“Disengaged employees are overall less productive and can even cause health and safety risks as concentration drops and they make mistakes,” added Dalton.

If you’re looking to prevent disengagement among your staff, keep an eye out for common triggers like hostile management, job-role stagnation, and preventable misalignment in the workplace. Consider solutions like EmployER Engagement by Work InstituteOpens a new window , which is based on the idea that companies must take the onus for disengagement. Over time, you will become acutely familiar with the drivers of disengagement, nipping them in the bud before they can ever reach critical mass.

Do you think it is possible to re-engage actively disengaged employees? Tell us your thoughts on FacebookOpens a new window , LinkedInOpens a new window , or TwitterOpens a new window . We would love to hear from you!