Business Leadership Today

What a Disengaged Employee Looks Like


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

A high level of engagement among employees is the most valuable asset an organization can have due to the passion and enthusiasm engaged employees bring to their jobs. This is why so much time, effort, and money is spent on engagement initiatives each year. 

Yet, despite this, lack of engagement is still a problem—one that has unfortunately grown worse in 2022. It can be challenging enough to engage employees who are willing to be engaged or re-engaged, but addressing active disengagement is the most challenging engagement dilemma because of the damage disengaged employees can do in the workplace.

How do you recognize a disengaged employee?

A disengaged employee looks just like their engaged co-workers on the surface, but, unlike engaged employees, they bring neither passion nor commitment to their jobs. They often exhibit toxic behaviors, underperform, and lack a strong belief in or enthusiasm for the organization’s mission, vision, or values. 

In this article, we’ll take a look at the three levels of engagement employees fit into, explore the actions and behaviors disengaged employees exhibit, as well as possible causes of disengagement. We’ll also consider how these behaviors can impact the organization and provide some strategies for addressing them. 

The Three Levels of Engagement

Employee engagement can be measured by the extent to which employees feel passionate about their work and how committed they are cognitively, emotionally, and physically to the organization and its mission. 

An employee will fit into one of three categories of engagement depending on their level of commitment to their job: engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged.


Due to their emotional commitment, engaged employees feel a sense of purpose, find meaning in the work they do, and care about their work, their co-workers, and the organization. 

Engaged employees do not just show up for the paycheck or a shot at a promotion—they truly care about the organization’s mission, vision, and values. They are invested in the future of the company and recognize that they play an important role and that the work they do is essential to its success. 

Engaged employees feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback and interacting with leadership. They also experience strong social relationships with their coworkers.

Indicators of high engagement in a workplace include less absenteeism, higher retention rates, increased productivity as the result of high performance, improved customer service, resulting in more client satisfaction and client retention, and better overall profitability for the organization.

Not Engaged

Not engaged (or unengaged) employees show up but work with little commitment or enthusiasm. They do what they are asked, but they rarely go above and beyond because they are not fully invested in the organization’s success or necessarily on board with its mission.

Employees who are not engaged will do their work but are disinterested in it. They may miss deadlines, communicate poorly (and rarely) with management and co-workers, don’t take ownership, and don’t demonstrate accountability. They may not participate when they are tasked with working on collaborative projects. 

Employees who are not engaged could have been engaged at one time but aren’t any longer. This lack of engagement can be due to changes in their work environment that they take issue with or because of issues in their personal lives that have affected their level of enthusiasm for their job. 

Most workers fall into the not engaged category.

Actively Disengaged

Disengaged employees lack the commitment of their engaged peers. These employees are typically unhappy in their roles, have no job satisfaction, and spread negativity within the organization. 

These employees are not interested in problem-solving, process improvement, collaboration, or innovation. They may be averse to change and express frustration when they are asked to do certain tasks or learn new processes.

They can also end up costing companies a lot of money. It is estimated that the total cost of disengaged employees in the U.S. is $450-500 billion annually. This makes disengagement a serious threat to the success of organizations.

Signs of Disengagement

According to Forbes, employee engagement scores increased a bit during COVID (in some industries where hybrid and remote work was possible). However, a poll conducted by Gallup in early 2022 revealed that 32% of full- and part-time employees are engaged, while 17% are actively disengaged. 

Actively disengaged employees are a real problem because they can cause significant damage to employee morale, bring down performance, stifle innovation, and adversely affect profitability. 

They may be late to work often or have a lot of absences that can cause work disruptions and create issues for their co-workers in the process. This is just one of the ways they create issues for their co-workers. 

Disengaged employees can also create a negative, toxic environment that spreads throughout their department and possibly to other departments and the entire organization. The toxic behavior can manifest itself in several ways. 

The negative, toxic environments disengaged employees create can impact engaged employees who may become less engaged due to the morale problem it creates. This phenomenon is known as social contagion, with attitudes and behaviors spreading among other employees, who then develop those attitudes and behaviors.

And yet, even though they are doing less than the minimum amount of work, and far less work than engaged employees, disengaged employees often stay with a company for years longer than employees who are more productive, more talented, or more engaged.

Disengaged employees will often drive away other employees they feel threatened by professionally, especially if potential promotions or recognition of accomplishments are in the mix.

Disengagement vs. Burnout

There are some employees that never engage and can’t be engaged. If they hang around in a role long enough, they become actively disengaged, which is the point at which you start seeing more toxic work environments.

However, it’s important to recognize the distinction between a disengaged employee and a formerly engaged employee who is becoming disengaged due to burnout, which is becoming a major issue as the COVID-19 Pandemic wears on.

Here’s one example of how burnout could possibly lead to disengagement issues. 

At Goldman Sachs, 13 first-year analysts in the company’s investment banking unit surveyed themselves, with a focus on the time they put in at their jobs, which can climb to 110 hours per week. The results of this survey, along with the analysts’ concerns, were put into a PowerPoint presentation. The presentation included bar charts showing the ill effects of job stress. 

These analysts had ranked their mental and physical health on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the healthiest). The mental health score was rated at 8.8 and the physical health score at 9 when they first started working for the company. 

But, after that first year, the numbers dropped to 2.8 for mental health and 2.3 for physical health. This kind of deterioration in mental and physical health, especially if it is a widespread issue throughout the company, can lead to disengagement on a large-scale.

Active disengagement and burnout require different approaches to address them effectively. Formerly engaged employees dealing with burnout may be re-engaged with more flexibility, more autonomy, hybrid work options, fewer work hours, and a better work/life balance.

Actively disengaged employees who are causing serious morale issues and undermining leadership may not be so simple to engage. 

Another Take on Disengagement

Keep in mind, disengagement can happen slowly over time. And there are many reasons an employee may become disengaged, but some of those reasons could reflect more poorly on the organizational culture and leadership than on the employee. 

Disengaged employees may feel underappreciated if they are never offered recognition for their accomplishments or are not given the opportunity to regularly exchange feedback with managers. They may become disengaged if they are being micromanaged and not given the autonomy they need to do their job. 

They may disengage because they are underpaid for the work they do, which is a valid reason for disengagement if an organization doesn’t offer a decent salary with benefits. Lack of flexibility in hours can disengage workers who want a work/life balance. 

Some employees may disengage because they don’t find the work meaningful. In this situation, a leader should ask themselves if they make the work seem meaningful through their behaviors and actions and if they demonstrate organizational core values on a daily basis—because this is how a leader engages employees. 

How to Handle Disengagement

There are a variety of ways to reach out to disengaged employees to see if a course correction is possible.

Of course, things like this often come up on annual performance reviews. But how useful are those for addressing disengagement in a timely manner?

Providing feedback to a disengaged employee can make them self-aware of their actions and behaviors, and how they accept that feedback will be a good way to determine if engagement is possible. The employee has to want to be engaged for this to work. 

It’s more helpful if the feedback is given on a regular and consistent basis, not just during annual performance review time. Providing the feedback as close to the time of the disengagement behaviors as possible makes it more effective.

Along with feedback, coaching and mentoring is a good way to guide a disengaged employee toward engagement. Getting to know a disengaged employee and what could be going on in their personal lives that could be contributing to their disengagement can happen during the coaching process.

It’s always a good idea to check in with your employees on issues like this on a regular basis, but for a disengaged employee, it can possibly help you get to the root cause of the disengaged behavior and fix it. 

Fortunately, some disengaged employees have the potential to be engaged employees again, but it’s wise to determine if that employee’s basic needs are being met so they have the tools they need to perform at their best. 

Are the disengaged employees being given enough autonomy, recognition, feedback, growth and professional development opportunities, and a healthy work/life balance? Is there anything you can do as a leader to make their work more meaningful to them?

There are different strategies for re-engaging these disengaged employees through coaching, pay increases, more recognition and feedback, more flexibility, more autonomy, and job redesigns if the employee would perform better in a different department or if given different tasks and responsibilities.

If all these tactics fail, this is a strong indication that the employee is just not a good fit for the organization. The only options may be disciplinary actions or letting that employee go if they refuse to engage. 

While this last resort is not the only option, you have to weigh the pros and cons and consider the impact on other employees and the organization’s functioning if the employee stays in the role and remains disengaged. 

If the disengagement is widespread or happens slowly over time to an employee who was once engaged, disengagement levels could be due to organizational culture issues, poor leadership, or less obvious problems that leadership may not see from their vantage point. 

Conducting regular and frequent employee engagement surveys is a good way to find out where the problems are coming from, and they are a good tool for guiding leaders in solving them.  

How Leaders Impact Engagement

According to author and BLT contributor Laurie Sudbrink, of all the other factors that affect engagement, leaders affect employee engagement the most. 

A leader’s ability to authentically build relationships with team members, their level of self-awareness, their personal sense of accountability, as well as their health and well-being, can all have a significant impact on employee engagement.

According to a 25-year study by Gallup, the duration of an employee’s tenure is largely determined by the relationship they have with their direct manager. Around 50-70% of an employee’s perception of their work environment is tied to the actions and behaviors of leadership. 

More than anyone else, the boss creates the conditions that determine people’s ability to work well. This is why cultivating positive relationships with every member of the team is essential for high levels of engagement. 

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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