7 ways to spot if an employee isn't engaged

7 ways to spot if an employee isn't engaged
7 ways to spot if an employee isn't engaged

The world is in the middle of an employee engagement crisis. Only 10% of employees in Western Europe are engaged at work, according to Gallup.

In the US, this figure is slightly more at 33%, but still nothing to boast about.

With the start of a new year, disengaged employees may start looking around to see if the grass is greener elsewhere. Whilst this may seem like the ideal solution, People Companies (companies that value their people and put them before all else) care about their staff – with the right approach, disengaged employees can be turned into engaged ones.

Particularly if it’s your top talent who are disengaged; hanging onto them will pay dividends in the long run, and helps avoid additional recruitment costs of trying to replace key individuals.

So how can you spot when employees are disengaged? Here’s seven signs that indicate when employees are not engaged and how to tackle it.

  1. Missing deadlines

If you’re hearing a lot of excuses from an employee about falling behind and not delivering projects on time, especially if they’re pointing the finger elsewhere, it could be a sign of disengagement.

This one is a tricky one to gauge though, as there are of course genuine reasons for employees missing deadlines, from having personal issues to being overloaded with too much work.

The only way to know for sure is to initiate a conversation with the employee to find out what’s been going on in their world and find out what’s behind them missing deadlines

If, after an initial chat, it’s clear they’ve simply lost all motivation to do the job, then it’s going to require a joint approach from their line manager, supported by the HR or People team, to work with the employee to find a way to reinvigorate them and get to the bottom of why they may not be as engaged as they can be.

Perhaps the role they have isn’t quite suited to their skillset; they may feel more fulfilled in a different team or department.

Maybe they want more recognition for the work they do. Alternatively, they may simply have too much work on and need more support with managing their workload.

  1. Apathy

Another clear sign of a disengaged employee is a lack of interest in their work and the company.

If any attempt to try and engage with them over a piece of work is met with a real disinterest, managers and colleagues may feel like they’re bothering this person and end up tiptoeing around them.

If this is unusual behaviour for the person, this could be a good sign, as it means there is probably a genuine reason for their sudden disinterest – and this is what line managers need to get to and understand. Perhaps a manager or colleague has upset them, or they’ve not received feedback on a certain piece of work that they bust a gut to deliver on time.

Perhaps wider changes within the organization are unsettling them or making them feel disengaged with the senior management.

If it’s just a general lack of apathy, then the resetting of goals or incentives is often a good starting point to engage the worker and get them interested again in their role. Even better than this is asking them: ‘what would make you more engaged at work’ or ‘how can we better support you at work, and create the type of role, team or company that you want to work at?’

Just 12% of employees are asked regularly about what would improve their experiences at work, our latest research found. Simply by asking employees what makes a great employee experience can make a difference – not only can you find out how to design great experiences, but they’ll appreciate being asked.

  1. Lack of communication

When an employee becomes withdrawn and stops sharing with colleagues and managers what they’re doing, it indicates a certain lack of engagement.

If they sit silently during team meetings and don’t offer any kind of verbal contribution throughout the working day, there is often serious disengagement going on.

A first point of call is to look at how the manager is communicating with the team. Is there a problem with communication across the team or is it just with one individual? Have there been reports of managers not communicating with staff properly in this department?

Perhaps the individual may have lost trust or faith in their manager and decided to stop communicating with them.

Good people data can help pinpoint if this is an isolated incident or more of a department-wide problem.

  1. Regular complaining

Every company has those who may be more vocal about things they don’t like than others, but recognizing when an employee has valid complaints and learning how to engage with them over these points is the key to turning these disengaged workers around.

Does your company have a formal means for employees to share any concerns or make suggestions for improvements to the office environment for example? Do you run quick pulse surveys to gain regular and instant feedback from your workforce?

If not, perhaps complaining is the only way these disengaged members of staff feel they can be heard.

Asking employees what matters most to them in the workplace is often a much-undervalued question that many businesses never ever ask.

Almost half (47%) of respondents to our survey have never been asked by their employer how they can improve their working experiences.

So, introduce ways for open dialogue to become a part of the day-to-day culture within the business and turn the complaints into results.

  1. Resistance to requests

Disengaged employees will be unlikely to want to take on anything outside of what they see as their core remit. They will make excuses or find reasons why they can’t take on extra work or try a new way of doing things. Even simple requests may be resisted.

Asking them what it is that they are concerned about may open a new level of communication with them that hadn’t existed before. Perhaps they have concerns about the amount of work they’re already doing and are feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

Working with them to establish some clear structure and manageable goals could turn this disengagement around.

It might also be worth thinking about what training has been offered to line managers – are they clear in how they communicate requests to their reports? Are they supporting those they line manage so that people in the company feel they have their backing and encouragement?

Every person in your organization will have a different way of working. Some may like to have things shown to them, others could want to see the outcome of the work they’ve done. Put training in place to make sure your line managers understand this range of different ways of working, and how they can change their approaches based on what their reports are most responsive to.

  1. Low quality of work

There could be a number of reasons why an employee may be consistently delivering a poor level of work. Perhaps they’re in a role not suited to their skillset, or they may have things going on outside of work that is affecting them. Do they have enough – or too much – work?

HR and People teams need to support line managers to fully understand the reasons behind low quality work. Bear in mind they may have never actually had it pointed out to them that what they’re delivering is under par. Past managers may have avoided what they deemed to be a difficult conversation.

Ensure you’re supporting line managers to give clear, concise and time-specific feedback so that employees know what is expected, how they can step up, and what they need to do next time to address this.

Assessing the employee’s training needs and skill levels is essential in this scenario to raise the bar and get them back on track.

  1. Lack of ownership

‘Nothing to do with me’, ‘not my responsibility’, ‘thought someone else would do it’ are common refrains of someone disengaged with their role and the company.

Finding things that they do care about in their role, even if it’s just one element, is the key to changing the mindset of these employees.

For example, perhaps one day a week they may be involved in video editing for the digital marketing team and really enjoy that task but the rest of the time they’re apathetic about their other tasks. Could they become more engaged if there was the promise of expanding the amount of time they get to do the video editing, for example?

A reallocation of duties among a team can often revive disengaged employees, with certain team members thriving do certain tasks that others really don’t get any enjoyment out of.


Good People Companies – organizations which put their people first beyond everything else – are constantly tuned into their people’s needs and engage with them regularly so that they can provide better workforce experiences, and in turn, engage their people.

This, however, may be easier in theory than in practice, so we spoke to 500+ HR leaders to find out where they are in their journey to become a People Company, and what steps they’d recommend to others on that journey. Find out what they said by downloading our research report – the results may be surprise you.


Are you ready to become a People Company? Download our latest research report today.

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