Need to start saving with a new ATS? Learn how to calculate the return on investment of your ATS Calculate ROI now

How to spot disengaged employees

Nikoletta Bika
Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta holds an MSc in HR management and has written extensively about all things HR and recruiting.

What makes disengaged employees stand out? They’re unlikely to send you a memo, although you can get some insight from employee engagement surveys. A disengaged employee is difficult to define. They might be actively disengaged, spreading negativity and performing poorly. But, they might also just be doing the bare minimum, going through the motions without a hint of enthusiasm.

Keep an eye out for the following red flags of dwindling employee engagement:

1. Referral requests fall on deaf ears

Employees who aren’t engaged aren’t likely to refer candidates for open positions. If you’re actively asking for referrals but never receive any, your employees may not be engaged enough. Actively disengaged employees might even use social media to discourage others from applying.

Applicant Tracking Systems can be a big help with referral programs. Workable allows users to encourage employees to refer people for positions. And with the system’s report feature, you can keep track of who’s referring.

Triple your employee referrals

Harness the power of your employee network to source high-quality candidates, without tapping out your resources.

Try Workable's employee referrals

2. Customers aren’t satisfied with employees

Tracking customer reviews is always useful. When customers give low ratings to an employee who usually performs well, it might indicate faltering engagement. Of course, customers aren’t always fair, but they can give valuable insight.

Sometimes, targets are unrealistic. Even if employees try hard to meet them, they’ll slowly give up. Other times, the bar may be set too low. Employees won’t feel challenged or stimulated by their job. Try to find the best recipe for each employee.

3. Employees don’t really talk to managers

When employees trust their direct supervisors or senior management, they communicate their problems and ideas. If employees aren’t engaged, you may notice that they interact minimally with management and when they do, they lack spontaneity and rapport. If employees seem to rely more on gossip than official announcements and guidelines, you could have a case of low engagement on your hands.

This symptom is serious because it can be contagious. If people don’t express their problems to management, they’re unlikely to solve them. They end up complaining and inflating issues, spreading frustration and low morale to their peers or team members.

4. Managers don’t praise their team members

You can ask managers and supervisors: what did you do in the past month to reward or praise your team members? If you’re met with silence or hesitant answers, you might have an engagement problem. Employees who don’t see their work being recognized are unlikely to be motivated or engaged.

If employees feel undervalued, managers might be facing problems too. A few of them might just be bad leaders. But others could be disengaged themselves. It’d be difficult for them to praise the work of others when they can’t find meaning in their own.

5. Employees complain consistently

Unhappy employees are unlikely to openly complain that their job has no meaning or that they’d rather be anywhere other than the office. But, they will probably file all sorts of other complaints about their supervisors, their colleagues or their office conditions. These complaints aren’t necessarily unfounded; you need to investigate them. But, if you notice a pattern with specific employees, it’s worth delving deeper into their motives.

6. Employees are always at odds

Disengaged employees aren’t interested in solving problems and making progress. Often, they express their lack of engagement through open frustration and aggression. These employees will always be at odds with someone and will resist new initiatives or their manager’s instructions. Their negativity can be very damaging for overall morale.

It’s important to tell the difference between a disengaged employee and an ‘office jerk.’ Usually, a disengaged employee doesn’t cause problems at first, but becomes more argumentative as time passes. They’ll probably display other symptoms of disengagement too.

7. Employees spend too much time not doing their jobs

It’s natural to see employees chatting briefly when passing each other or moving around the office occasionally. It’s actually a good way to build team spirit. Problems arise when this kind of socializing and wandering becomes excessive. Imagine an employee who has, for the most part, a computer job. If they’re rarely at their desk but are seen wandering in the hallways instead, then you know something’s up.

If employees spend too much time not doing their actual jobs, managers might be guilty. By assigning tasks that are unrelated to an employee’s actual job or skill set, they’re opening the path to low job satisfaction and engagement. They should also talk to their team members if they spot idleness before it becomes a problem.

8. Employees are late

This is a well-known red flag. Disengaged employees don’t rush to work in the mornings. Most of the time, a delay of up to 15 minutes is excusable, especially if employees clearly try to make up for lost time. But, it’s more serious if employees are very late, leave the office at random moments or take excessive lunch breaks.

If an employee is a little late every day, they’re not necessarily disengaged. They may lack time management skills, struggle with work-life balance, or have differences in culture. In these cases, training, flexible hours or working from home options could help.

9. Employees are frequently absent

Absenteeism is more serious than tardiness. Employees who don’t come to work at all, or who take lots of random sick days are often just sick of work. And, if they seem to consistently ignore pressing deadlines and targets when requesting days off, they’re clearly disengaged.

Sometimes employees are only mentally absent. They come to work, but their minds wander. This could happen occasionally and it’d be fine. But, if you consistently catch employees looking off into space or have to call or message them multiple times to get an answer, you may be looking at a disengaged employee.

10. Employees aren’t trying to improve

Engaged employees see opportunities and seize them. They innovate, they volunteer and they improve processes. If you see your company or department lagging in these aspects, employees mightn’t be engaged enough. Employees who show lack of initiative don’t try to improve the way things are done. They don’t participate in meetings, planning sessions or change initiatives and they rarely share their ideas.

Lack of engagement can result from an unfavorable environment. An employee who’s brimming with ideas and enthusiasm won’t remain engaged for long if nobody seems to listen to them or if they don’t have the tools and resources they need.

11. Quality of work is low

Disengaged employees certainly don’t aim for maximum quality. Actively disengaged employees won’t meet expectations. Or, they may be doing just enough to not get fired. So, if overall quality decreases or stagnates, it may signal low engagement.

Employers should be careful though. It’s better to view subpar performances as one of the many red flags for employee engagement, instead of the defining symptom. Bad results can have diverse causes. Low quality work could be caused by inefficient processes, insufficient resources or unrealistic targets. Look for additional signs that point to lack of employee engagement, so you can dedicate your resources to solving the problem.

12. Employees leave in high numbers

Some industries traditionally have high turnover rates. It all comes down to comparing your turnover rate with your industry and location average, or your company’s turnover rates from previous years. Turnover rate changes may depend on many factors but engagement issues are often to blame. It’s important to know who leaves and why, to decide whether you have a healthy turnover rate. Exit interviews can help you understand potential engagement issues too. So long as they’re not too little, too late.

Related: How companies succumb to sunk cost culture

Elevate your HR management

Streamline onboarding, manage employee profiles & simplify HR document sharing with Workable's new features.

Learn more

Let's grow together

Explore our full platform with a 15-day free trial.
Post jobs, get candidates and onboard employees all in one place.

Start a free trial