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Disengaged: When good employees go bad

InfoWorld
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In this story:

'Heart out of the work'

Engage the disengaged

Team tactics

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



(IDG) -- Have you heard the old saw about the employee who retired but forgot to tell the front office?

That story is really about a disengaged worker, someone no longer committed to the job, says Renée Arrington, a partner in the retained executive search firm of Ray & Berndtson, based in Fort Worth, Texas. Managers must take steps either to recapture such a worker's attention, Arrington says -- or to help him or her move on.

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She says current market conditions may cause some employees to become disengaged -- or disconnected -- from the workplace.

"When a company has gone through a series of layoffs, as many tech companies are doing now," she says, "employees might pull back from the pace and be preoccupied by the layoffs. Managers need to keep this in mind."

Arrington says mergers and acquisitions may cause some employees to become disengaged so they're no longer motivated by their job duties. Employees' anxieties increase as they spend time speculating about their future employment status. When the company is in such flux, she says, "the employees' roles are not well-defined. The [new] boss or staff hasn't been named."

Arrington says the longer a potential merger or acquisition remains unresolved, the more potentially affected employees might become disengaged.

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'Heart out of the work'

"Disengaged workers are rusted out, rather than burnt out," Arrington says. They're often formerly excellent employees who did whatever it took to get the job done and who now contribute at a minimal level.

"Disengaged workers don't have traction. They're not accomplishing the same amount of work that they used to." Arrington says someone unmotivated by his or her job won't make progress on professional goals. "The person has pulled his or her heart out of the work."

Arrington describes some signals managers should watch for to identify the disengaged employee.

•   "The person used to contribute in meetings and now no longer offers his or her views.

•   "Or that person was always ready to pitch in during an emergency, and now sits on the sidelines.

"Managers will see these kind of dramatic changes in behavior. Each person behaves differently. Some disengaged workers start taking long lunches or more sick time."

Even with the difficulty in finding the right IT staffer, not every disengaged employee is worth bringing back into the fold, says Arrington.

"If this person was a marginal player before becoming disengaged, you might want to choose to end the relationship," she says. But if the employee normally was motivated and results-oriented, addressing the problem with the employee, she says, is better than firing.

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Engage the disengaged

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"One disengaged worker can affect the morale of the entire team," Arrington says. "Nip it in the bud. Don't let it fester."

If a manager notices an employee exhibiting symptoms of disengagement, close the door and have an off-the-record conversation with the employee. The manager should approach him or her in a concerned, but positive manner.

Begin by telling the employee that the change in behavior has been noted. Ask whether the problems are coming from work or home. Arrington suggests you then ask open-ended questions.

"Ask how the employee can deal with the problem. Many formerly motivated employees will be relieved if their manager says, 'We want you to make a difference. We want to see you succeed,' " Arrington says.

How the manager approaches the employee is just as important as what's said. "Don't be punitive and say, 'What the heck have you been doing? You're not making the bar.' If the manager is negative or if the employee isn't made to feel important, he or she may think, 'Well heck, why should I care if that's your attitude?' "

In addition to external factors, corporate culture may be enervating to employees. "If you find that you have several disengaged workers, that might be symptomatic of your culture," Arrington says.

In that instance, she says, a manager needs to make changes in the department. "Make your team an exciting place to be. If your team is meeting your goals and performing well, this can bring disengaged workers back into the fold."

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Team tactics

Besides speaking one-on-one with disengaged employees, Arrington suggests taking concrete action to reinvigorate disengaged workers.

"A good way to offer a compelling opportunity to a disengaged worker is to put together a small team to analyze emerging technologies. It's very exciting for IT professionals to look at the newest technologies and analyze how they might apply to the business," Arrington says.

"The employee should also understand the level of risk that the company is willing to accept with regard to emerging technologies, the amount of money that has been or would be budgeted for new technology."

Arrington also suggests that managers engage employees with new challenges on an ongoing basis -- move directors around within the company every year, for example. Conduct team-building exercises.



RELATED STORIES:
Job cuts circle the globe
April 17, 2001
Tech careers update: Skills shifting, demand easing
April 6, 2001
New IT survey finds tech workers wary
March 6, 2001
The psychology of layoffs
February 2, 2001
Book review: When talent calls the shots
December 25, 2000
Hiring and firing in America
November 27, 2000

RELATED IDG.net STORIES:
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10 tips for keeping employees
(InfoWorld.com)
Energizing the troops takes more than money
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The best way to keep IT workers
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RELATED SITES:
Ray & Berndtson

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