Understanding Employee Disengagement - Wednesday, February 17 2010

Entec Corporation has been conducting employee engagement surveys for the past 11 years. During that time it became apparent that many clients have had some difficulty understanding the term employee “disengagement”. At the same time, I noticed other organizations that conduct employee engagement surveys like Entec Corporation, have also run into difficulty explaining employee disengagement to their clients. Some firms now use the term “disinterested” instead of disengaged. In conversation with one of our clients we agreed on the term passively disengaged.


At the centre of this issue is the definition of employee engagement. Simply stated, employees that are engaged are emotionally committed to their work and to their organizations. Therefore employees that are disengaged are not emotional committed to their work and their organization. This does not mean that these disengaged employees are necessarily bad employees or that they don’t make a contribution. It means they come to work, they do what they are asked to do and they will not do more than required. They will not make suggestions for improving processes or work methods in their departments. They will not offer up any new ideas. They are not emotionally involved. They do their work and when the day ends they leave punctually. They don’t think about their work or their organizations after they leave.


The point is that everyone in this business has struggled to come up with a term that appropriately describes the employees who come to work, do their work to get a pay check, and leave at the end of the day, not wanting to think about their work or their company after they leave. They are not bad employees; they are just not into their work. Their work is a means to an end.


Let’s put this into perspective. One of our clients had a total of 45% engaged employees. This is two and a half times higher than the average in the US or Canada. Compared to other organizations, this is a well-run company. However, they also had 51% disengaged employees and 4% actively disengaged employees. This is not a bad thing. Even in the best companies, the disengaged numbers typically run between 35%-40%. So the opportunity for improvement in our sample company is around 10%.


I need to say a word about the actively disengaged employees. These employees are emotionally committed to undermining their organization. In other words they are emotionally committed but in a negative and destructive way. The 4% of actively disengage is a good number in that it is less than 5%. There are many studies that show (for different things) that about 5% of the general population constantly complain, they are never satisfied no matter how good things are. There is nothing you can do about these people. That's the way they are wired. It’s the same at the other end. There are about 5% who are go-getters regardless of circumstances. They will always excel and be successful in whatever they do and wherever they are because that’s how they are wired.


The employees in the middle provide the greatest opportunity for raising the levels of engagement in any organization. Given the right circumstances, working environment and leadership, disengaged employees can become engaged. But as I mentioned above, of this 90%, chances are that a maximum of 50%-55% of these have the inclination to become engaged or actively engaged. The remaining 35%-40% will stay disengaged. Again, that's how they are wired.


Therefore organizations need to first concern themselves with the actively disengaged employees if that number is much greater than 5%. This is the group that presents the greatest danger to lowering morale, commitment and performance. The organization needs to understand what the causes of the active disengagement are: did they slip through the hiring filter, is it the working conditions, job design, organizational design or is it inappropriate leadership behaviour of front line supervisors. What needs to be fixed to at a minimum move these employees form the actively disengaged to the disengaged category.


What I am describing here applies to "mature" organizations. For example, in the early years when Microsoft was a young and rapidly growing company, (I am only guessing here) I am sure the level of employee engagement was very high and did not subscribe to the percentages noted above. However, today, I would bet that the percentages noted above apply to Microsoft as well.

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