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The Symptoms of a Disengaged Employee


Wake Up and Spot the Disengagement

As an employee engagement platform, we do a lot of research on employers, their employees, business leaders, and how they interact. One of the most common queries we see is about decreasing turnover and improving employee retention rates. After all, retaining employees has numerous benefits, including cost savings, increased innovation, and improving company culture/reputation.

But we find that turnover isn’t really “curable” with a simple Band-Aid of increasing salaries or offering free snacks to make them stay. It’s better to get at the heart of the problem, addressing why the employee is disengaged enough to leave in the first place. And to do that, you must first identify which employees are disengaged.

That’s the tough part—and it’s what most managers often miss. But you may not always be on the front lines, directly coaching employees. That doesn’t mean you can’t do your part as a company leader to impact employee engagement. To us, the signs are easy to detect. That’s why we’ve put together this guide to help you spot the symptoms of a disengaged employee by examining the reasons they leave a company and how to watch for those clues in their work and feedback.


As we examine The Disengaged Worker, you’ll come to a better understanding of:

  • The real definition of engagement
  • The consequences (both cultural and monetary) of having disengaged workers
  • The can’t-afford-to-miss symptoms of a disengaged worker
  • How to prevent the problem before it starts
  • What to do when an employee is no longer engageable

What Does an Engaged Employee Look Like?

Accurately defining employee engagement

It would be extremely difficult to identify your disengaged employees if you didn’t know what you were looking for. There’s no doubt you’ve heard someone define employee engagement at some point in your career—but did they truly describe engagement (motivation, connection, feedback) or job satisfaction (pay, perks, work environment)? Was the definition based on extensive research and expert opinion or sheer conjecture?

Forget those other definitions of employee engagement you’ve heard. We’ve boiled down hundreds of executive interviews, employee surveys, and hours of research to arrive at a definition that you can finally identify with:

Engagement isn’t summed up in a series of annual survey responses. It’s not an award or rating that an outside party gives you. It’s simply the way your employees feel about your company and what it stands for— and how they demonstrate that in their daily work.

The High Stakes of Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is sometimes thought of as a “nice-to-have” instead of a crucial component of your business strategy. Yet, investing in the engagement of your employees has been proven to exponentially impact business results. So what’s at stake, exactly?

Profit. Companies with engaged employees report 2.5x more revenue than competitors with low engagement levels.2 Employee engagement is also a key differentiator when facing competition, as companies with engaged employees outperform competitors 202%.3

Innovation. When employees aren’t engaged, they aren’t invested in the mission of the company or motivated to build better products  and solutions, forfeiting innovation and the ability to keep up with the competition. When they’re inspired to do their best work, research shows they are up to four times more productive at their jobs.4

Turnover costs. The Society for Human Resources Management reports that “every time a business replaces a salaried employee, it costs six to nine months of their salary, on average.” But money isn’t the only thing that can cost your company. When employee turnover is high, more HR time is spent filling those positions instead of engaging current employees. DHI Hiring Indicators reported the time to fill vacancies hit an all-time high in May 2015 with an average of 27.8 working days.

Subsequent disengagement. Disengagement affects more than just the disengaged employee. It also affects those who are “left behind” when a disengaged employee parts ways with the company. Even worse, it produces negative chatter about the company, resulting in a poor legacy as an employer.

It’s said that employees are a company’s most valuable asset. If that’s true, having disengaged employees should raise a flag for immediate investigation and action. Luckily, you can detect and address the problem early. You just have to know what to look for.

The Symptoms of a Disengaged Employee

You might be tempted to look at what we call “surface-level” symptoms like an increase in vacation time, sick days, or time away from one’s desk. But these are often symptoms of problems outside of work… or sometimes they’re not problems at all. (Remember: employees are human. Sometimes people really are sick for long stretches of time. Sometimes people really do need extra vacation.) We as leaders can’t ignore employees’ personal lives. And although many employers have tried to compartmentalize the two, the truth is that the lines between work life and personal life are more blurred than solid. Don’t forget your own humanity when you think about employee needs and encourage your front-line managers to probe a little deeper first to see what’s going on under the surface.

Instead of focusing on these external symptoms, look at how engaged the employee is when they’re actually on the job. You might see things like:


Lack of Zest/Energy

Which may manifest as:

  • Lack of participation in meetings > Resulting in no new ideas or energy for projects
  • Lack of ambition around projects > Resulting in lost creativity and product innovation

Disconnectedness from Culture

Which may manifest as:

  • Lack of effort in creating/nurturing friendships at work > Resulting in lack of team collaboration and unhealthy culture
  • Lack of participation in company functions > Resulting in no sense of “team” to meet goals and improve culture

Lack of Meaningful Feedback

Which may manifest as:

  • Lack of meaningful contributions in meetings/projects > Resulting in missed opportunities for improvement
  • Lack of regular, productive employee feedback > Resulting in a culture of negativity and no clear ways to help


Why People Leave

If you’ve done any research on employee engagement and retention, you may have already come across The 7 Hidden Reasons People Leave 5, a book that examines voluntary attrition and exposes the internal reasons employees are likely to leave a job. These hidden reasons include:

At Emplify, we help employers identify disengagement before it leads to turnover by measuring engagement levels through regular employee surveys. Unlike other surveys that merely assess an employee’s satisfaction with their job (“surface-level” characteristics like work environment, pay, and perks), the Emplify Survey looks for true engagement, assessing employees based on 17 psychometrically-valid drivers of employee engagement.

By partnering the two ideas of “why people leave” and the Emplify Survey’s engagement drivers, we bring you an action plan that addresses the symptoms of disengaged employees while saving talented, engageable people from leaving your team.

The Emplify dashboard gives you a comprehensive picture of your overall employee engagement upon logging into the application. With an engagement score trendline and a color-coded engagement flow, you can easily track your team’s progress over time.


How to Engage the Disengaged Employee

*Actions Explained

(Re)write an accurate job description.
If the problem is the job, work with the employee to (re)write an accurate job description that details the true nature of the role. When writing, be sure to assess the gaps on the team. If those gaps are still not addressed, you may need to hire accordingly to fill them. Once finalized, remember to walk through the description with the employee so new expectations are set.

If the problem is the company, it may require an overhaul of the culture. Reset employee expectations by first acknowledging any gaps, reassessing/restating your mission/values so they’re clear to employees (and accessible via your internal app), then requesting that they re- engage under those new expectations.

Emplify provides an engagement flow view that allows you to track trends in employee engagement levels over time. Simply hover over each bar to see how employees improve (on a scale from highly disengaged to highly engaged) quarter over quarter.

Grow the employee through training and other opportunities.
Grow the employee through training, increased responsibilities, regular check-ins / mentoring, etc. (When new training or professional development opportunities are available, be sure to publish them in your company app so employees are aware and can sign up.) Or, change the job to better utilize the employee’s talents and glean more productive results.

Institute a performance review.
Institute a performance review program that ensures employees receive the tactical role-related feedback they need to improve. Encourage employees to set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, time bound) goals, while requiring managers to meet with one-on-one with  their  team  members before a certain date. Then, communicate company-wide reminders throughout the year via push messages encouraging employees and leaders to check in on their progress.

Expand roles and responsibilities.
Remember that increased pay and job titles aren’t the only worthwhile job enhancement opportunities. In addition to publishing the open internal opportunities you already have, look for ways to expand roles by giving more autonomy and responsibility.

Institute an internal recognition program.
Recognition can’t just come when an employee is disengaged. It must be fundamental to the company. Institute an internal peer recognition program or other awards given by leadership to celebrate employee success. Once given, archive their success in your app with the employee’s profile and a description of their achievement.

Foster an energizing, productive, and humanistic work environment.
A product of poor process management, improving employee stress and work/life balance requires a shift in the way you think humans operate and structuring your office environment and culture to account for it. By respecting the idea that people are creative beings who do their best work when their basic psychological needs of trust, safety, and capacity are met, you can structure your company values, policies, and office environment in a way that breeds energy, creativity, and flexibility.

Increase transparency and communication.
Trust and fairness are very personal—so when an employee loses faith in the company, the problem must be addressed on a personal level. Increase your transparency as a company by opening lines of communication—both at the company/employee level and manager-employee level. A great way to do this is by reaching them where they are, cutting through traditionally cumbersome channels to communicate through their most-used device—mobile. Send push notifications with reminders and announcements and keep your most important company information accessible via your app.

The Last Resort: When an Employee’s Un-engageable

Sometimes, you try everything—internal surveys, feedback and recognition programs, open communication, and even unique perks— and engaging the employee is still a struggle. That’s ok. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about getting the right people in the right seats on one’s metaphorical bus. If the right people aren’t in the right seats, it may require some rearranging or even having the wrong people come off the bus. While it may seem counterproductive to your employee retention goals, removing un-engageable employees from the company can do as much good for the culture as nurturing those who are engaged.

Emplify displays your engagement driver data as an easy-to-read heat map so you can quickly spot which drivers need the most improvement within specific areas of the business.

Engage Employees Before It’s Too Late

When employees are disengaged, it affects more than just the individual. It affects your entire company ecosystem—everything from the engagement levels of other employees all the way down to your bottom line and ability to compete with other companies. As in any other area of your business (assessing sales goals mid-quarter, surveying customers to prevent dissatisfaction, preparing your goals for the year ahead), addressing employee engagement takes effort and planning—before problems arise and you’re faced with losing talented individuals. By putting in the time to regularly measure your employee engagement levels and address problems at the source, you’ll be doing your employees and your business a major service.

Measure, Diagnose, and Solve Your Employee Engagement Challenges with Emplify

Discover your team’s true level of employee engagement. Demo Emplify’s solution today!

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1 Bureau of National Affairs (as cited by Dale Carnegie, “What Drives Employee Engagement and Why It Matters.”

2 Hay Group, “Lighting the Path to Success.”

3 Gallup (as cited by Dale Carnegie, “What Drives Employee Engagement and Why It Matters.”

4 Grant, Adam. Give and Take. Penguin Books, 2013.

5 Branham, Leigh. The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave. AMACOM, 2004

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