“I Quit… I Just Haven’t Told You Yet” – Fixing Employee Disengagement

You have an employee you thought was a great hire and had serious potential. But now they seem to be checked out and just going through the motions. News flash: They’ve basically quit and just haven’t told you yet. And what’s more, they may already be searching for another job opportunity.

Well, you’re not alone. Employers nationwide, even worldwide, are having this same experience and studies show that it’s primarily due to employee disengagement. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that out of 5.7 million job separations (as of the end of September 2022), over 4.1 million of those were employees who quit. That is 72% of all job separations!

Why so much quitting? 

Gallup statistics indicate that only about 32% of employees in the U.S. (and only 15% worldwide) are considered engaged with their employers. This statistic has improved very little in the past 22 years. In 2000, Gallup reported only 26% of workers were engaged, with the highest engagement in 2020 before the pandemic at 36%.

What exactly is employee engagement—and what does disengagement look like?

“Developing employee engagement must be the main focus of managers within every single stage of the employee life cycle, all of which directly influences the employee experience.” – Gallup

The employee experience is the sum of all encounters an employee has during their tenure with an organization. Employee engagement is the social and emotional connection an employee has with their job and the company. In other words, it’s how an employee feels about their work.

Employee disengagement is the opposite—a lack of connection to or interest in their work and their company. The most notable signs that an employee is (or is becoming) disengaged with their job include:

  • A decrease in work quality
  • Failing to work scheduled hours (including being there but not being productive)
  • Not participating in team activities
  • Ceasing to take on new responsibilities or going above their basic job requirements
  • Displaying a negative attitude, which can include gossip and toxicity in the workplace

So what causes employee disengagement?

There are key reasons why an otherwise star employee might become disengaged. Although there can be more causes, here are the most notable.

Breakdown of coworker relationships – The average employee spends a third of their life at work – usually more than they even spend with family. So one of the biggest motivators for an employee is the quality of relationships with their co-workers. Humans are social creatures. And when work relationships don’t exist or a disconnection occurs, employees begin to disengage.

Lack of feedback – Employees want to know how they are doing at their job. And if they do great job, they want to be recognized. Without feedback, even the best employees may start questioning their performance and start disengaging.

A bigger purpose – Employees, especially Millennials and Gen Z, want to work for a company where they can truly make an impact and be part of something bigger than themselves. Being aligned with a strong company mission is a big motivator. Not knowing where or how they fit into the puzzle of your organization can lead to employee disengagement.

Career growth – Employees want to improve and progress in their career. Not giving an employee opportunity to move forward in their current role and within the organization is a recipe for disengagement.

Out-of-touch management – We’ve heard it before: ”Employees don’t quit jobs, they quit managers.”  The greatest contributor to employee disengagement is managers who fail to keep their finger on the pulse of their employees through teambuilding, feedback, recognition, and opportunities.

How do you avoid ending up with a disengaged employee?

It’s not always easy. But it is management’s responsibility (and within its control) to keep their employees engaged with their job and the company. Here are some doable and effective ways to avoid disengagement:

  • Plan and support periodic team activities, outings or events. If an employee feels that they belong and are connected to the team, they’re more likely to remain engaged at work.
  • Find ways to recognize employees simply and frequently, even if it’s just a kind word or note. Employees who feel recognized for their contribution to the team and the organization will be more willing to go above and beyond.
  • Help employees feel a sense of purpose by communicating how their contribution fits into the company’s larger initiatives. This will go a long way toward keeping employees on board and engaged.
  • Have discussions with your employees about their career goals. Help them find opportunities for professional development. Helping employees feel accomplished but challenged is a sure way to keep them interested and engaged.
  • Most importantly, provide consistent feedback. Communication should be open between managers and employees. Frequent check-ins help managers monitor how engaged employees are and helps them identify problems more quickly. Listening to employees and getting to know their work from their point of view helps build trust and shows employees they matter. This, above all else, contributes most to employee engagement.

Build a Stay Plan

The U.S. has 10.7 million job openings (based on the latest BLS data)—giving employees unprecedented job options. This means it’s more important than ever to retain your top talent. And the most effective way to do that is through successful employee engagement.

While we’ve already stressed open, two-way communication between employees and their supervisor or manager, we also want this communication to be as effective and efficient as possible.

Enter the stay plan, a prescribed schedule of stay interviews with each employee. A stay interview is an informational conversation to discuss why an employee works for the company—and why they stay. These informal, one-to-one sessions generally last less than 30 minutes. But don’t let that brevity fool you into thinking it’s just a time for small talk. Prepare essential, probing questions that help identify, discuss and resolve issues the employee may have with their job or the company before they become bigger problems.

Pioneered by retention expert Richard Finnegan, the stay interview is a simple (and sadly, underused) strategy that builds accountability and connection with employees. These interviews should happen at least twice a year, but we recommend holding them more frequently. Making and taking the time for stay interviews goes a long way toward reducing your need for exit interviews. In fact, you might find that these focused and scheduled conversations become your model for avoiding employee disengagement.

Need help getting started? An experienced HR consulting team can partner with you as you design your employee engagement plan.


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