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Terms and Definitions

What is a disengaged employee?

Updated: May 24, 2024

Disengaged employee definition and meaning

A disengaged employee lacks motivation and commitment to their job, exhibits low morale, and may have a negative impact on productivity and team dynamics. Although they may perform their job duties satisfactorily, they usually don’t feel excited about or put in additional effort to help the company succeed.

More about disengaged employees

Because disengaged employees tend to lack drive, they typically don’t feel connected to their workplace or colleagues. This disconnect can take a toll on an organization, potentially leading to low productivity, widespread dissatisfaction, and increased employee turnover. Employers may find some of the studies on disengaged employees in the US to be eye-opening. According to a 2024 report by Gallup:

  • Only 33% of employees were engaged at work in 2023.
  • The percentage of actively disengaged employees decreased to 16% in 2023, down from 18% in 2022. Active disengagement is also known as “loud quitting.”
  • Approximately 50% of employees were not engaged in 2023 — also commonly referred to as “quiet quitting.”

 

Both loud quitting and quiet quitting indicate a lack of engagement. Next, we explore these two signs, along with others.

Common signs of a disengaged employee

Though each individual is different, there are some characteristics that are common when a worker may lack interest.

 

Signs an employee could be disengaged

Lack of interest in their work Low productivity
Missed performance goals Poor quality of work
Unwillingness to accept new projects Disinterest in participating in group events or activities
Tendency to arrive to work late and/or leave early Frequent absences
Actively demotivating their peers Frequent complaints coupled with a poor attitude
Actively demotivating their peers No emotional investment in their employer

 

These signs may also be present in employees who are either in the midst of loud quitting or quiet quitting.

Loud quitting refers to an actively disengaged employee. These individuals are usually vocal about their dislike for their job, are uncooperative, and are oftentimes chronic complainers with a negative attitude. Moreover, they may openly express their dissatisfaction and intention to leave, potentially affecting the morale of their coworkers and even the company’s reputation.

 

Quiet quitting occurs when an employee performs their job duties as required but does nothing beyond meeting the bare minimum. Although they may not voice complaints, this type of worker usually seeks to get more from their job, such as competitive wages, greater recognition, or better work-life balance.

Why do employees disengage?

The reasons vary by individual but may include the following:

  • No sense of purpose, making the employee feel as though their work doesn’t matter
  • Lack of alignment between the employee’s personal vision and the company’s mission
  • Insufficient growth opportunities, causing feelings of career stagnation
  • Inadequate training and resources to the job properly
  • A skills gap, meaning the employee lacks the necessary skills to execute their role
  • Excessive workload, resulting in burnout
  • Poor leadership and management
  • Not enough flexibility, causing an imbalance between work and home life
  • No clear direction on what they need to do to succeed or improve
  • Toxic workplace culture, leading to dysfunctional team dynamics
  • Unsatisfactory pay, benefits, or working conditions
  • Personal issues, such as family problems, mental health issues, or marital conflict

What happens when employees are disengaged?

The 2024 Gallup report found a link between disengaged employees and a company’s bottom line, stating that “not engaged or actively disengaged employees account for approximately $1.9 trillion in lost productivity nationally.

 

Disengagement can sometimes have a ripple effect. Depending on the circumstances, the actions of one disengaged employee can hamper company operations, such as when a key (disengaged) employee quits without notice, and the employer has to tread water because they cannot fill the role immediately. Furthermore, once the employee has left, it’s unlikely that they will recommend the company to others.

 

How to help a disengaged employee

There may be good reasons to investigate a drop in employee engagement. For example, maybe the employee was previously a top performer and is experiencing issues outside of the workplace. In other instances, they may want to remain with the company and simply be looking to be motivated. As a result, it may be worthwhile for employers to uncover the root cause of the problem and see what solutions make sense.

 

For example:

  • Avoid subjectivity by observing signs of disengagement in an objective manner.
  • Follow company procedures for handling disengagement, such as discussing the matter with the employee and collaborating with the human resources department.
  • Refrain from being hostile or accusatory toward the disengaged employee.
  • Speak to them in a safe environment that encourages transparent and productive conversation.
  • Ensure the person leading the discussion is qualified. If the manager does not have a healthy relationship with the employee, it may not lead to lead to a productive discussion.
  • Explain your concerns regarding disengagement tactfully to the employee.
  • Assure them that you appreciate their contributions to the company and want to help them continue to succeed. Then ask them how you can assist and figure out a plan together for moving forward.

 

Depending on how far the situation has progressed, you may or may not get to the bottom of the issue. But by taking the first step, you signal that you care about the employee’s well-being and may influence their decision to stay.

 

If the reason for the disengagement is due to a heavy workload, you may have more leeway to help than if the reason is external and outside of your control. For example, issues with personal health. But even if the issue is external, you might still be able to assist, such as by directing the employee to resources like the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Using disengaged employee in a sentence

“The last thing we ever want is for a disengaged employee to have a negative effect on productivity, retention, or the company’s reputation. For these reasons, our company makes it easy for employees to confidentially share feedback with HR if they do not feel challenged or valued.”

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