Quell disengagement before it capsizes your entire employer brand

Lizzie Barrett
April 27 ․ 9 min read

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There’s an old saying - prevention is better than a cure. In the face of crisis, it’s something we’re applying now, more than ever.

In the context of employee engagement, it’s exactly the same. It’s far better to prevent your employees from becoming disengaged rather than playing “catch up” and swim against the proverbial re-engagement tide. 

Typically after two years in a company, engagement levels bottom out and only tend to rise after a whopping 15 years with the same company. But we seem to always focus on those 13 years and talk about engagement or re-engagement. What I think we should be doing much more of is preventing that disengagement in those first two years.

And that’s not just in terms of avoiding a high turnover of staff and the facing agony of re-training and replacing employees. It makes good, practical business sense across all functions - finance, comms, marketing, PR, HR. If someone’s already been turned off by your business, it’ll simply take that much more effort (think time, money, resource, and reputation) to re-engage them. Instead, by being aware of disengagement triggers and avoiding them, your employees will be happier, more productive and thus engaged for longer. 

The bottom line

If we’re talking money, there’s more than enough evidence to support that opening statement. 

Take this for starters: disengaged employees cost the UK £52 - £70 billion per year in lost productivity. £70 billion! 

So how do we get to such a figure in lost revenue? It’s pretty straightforward. According to Gallup, disengaged employees have 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity and 15% lower profitability. One of the most significant productivity impacts is sickness absence. A few years ago, PwC reported that sick days cost UK organisations nearly £29 billion a year

But actually, a loss in earnings is only one part of the problem here. Disengagement creeps into your reputational cost; not just on the employer brand side, but the consumer and corporate side, too. While you’re feeling the loss of profitability from within with higher absenteeism and low productivity rates because of disengagement in your workforce, your consumers will be less likely to purchase from you if they know workers are treated badly, and investors will be less likely to buy your shares. 

Those are just the cold hard facts of having a disengaged workforce (and thus a poorer employer brand).

Defining employee disengagement

Typically, there’s a clear correlation between an employee who knows what their job is, and where their role fits into the company's purpose, mission or vision. They know how they’re contributing to that with their daily work. They understand how their behaviours, their actions and their mindset need to meet those; and how to share in the mission, vision and values of the company (which, by the way, should never be jargon-y traits like honesty, transparency, respect - these don’t mean much on their own.)

What’s far less discussed is what actually qualifies “disengagement”, the antonym. Interestingly enough, it can start - and often does - with the onboarding stage.

When someone first joins your company, they’ll be their most shiny, can-do attitude self. Ready to take on the new challenge, a new business, a new role. They’re a wonderful “blank slate”, so to speak, ready to be fully engaged with the business. 

Then, they step through the door, and gradually, that shiny attitude perhaps might dull - slightly at first. Their laptop isn’t ready, or they don’t have an email address, or their line manager is hurried and doesn't have the time to spend showing them around. They don't have a buddy. They haven't been given clear roles or responsibilities. They haven't been told what the purpose of the organisation is, they haven't met the senior leader of the business. They’re not quite sure where they’re stationed.

That’s the earliest point of possible disengagement someone might have. Then there are serious and more prevalent ones down the line - like being overburdened with work; dealing with legacy systems that aren’t equipped to handle current demands; being mistreated by a colleague or manager with no support to take action. These all add up to a much starker picture, where the business has failed to create or sustain a healthy employee/workplace relationship.

The actual symptoms of any disengaged employee can be a bit tricky to identify.

Someone who takes excessive breaks, who goes out of their way to gossip about others, and frequently calls in sick (as cited earlier) are symptomatic of a disengaged employee. And perhaps there are slightly less palpable elements - perhaps just coming across as someone who couldn’t care less if mistakes have been made. Someone who has lost that sense of conscientiousness.

Just be careful you’re not confusing this with other potential variables - like something going on in their personal lives. Again, long-term observations should help discern a disengaged employee versus someone who’s going through a hard time unrelated to work.

Tackling disengagement 

So how can you be on the look-out for widespread disengagement without hovering over your managers? What we'd recommend is including five key questions in your employee engagement or opinion surveys that will cut to the heart of what your employees are feeling.

Rather than having “yes” or “no” facing questions, we’d ask them to reference emotional touchpoints on a 1- 5 scale, with statements like the below:

I understand how my work directly contributes to the overall success of the organisation.

I would recommend this organization as a good place to work.

I feel proud of telling people who I work for.

I go the extra mile for colleagues and customers.

I am comfortable sharing my opinions at work.

Those are five key questions for me in terms of measuring engagement - because you have understanding, advocacy, pride, effort and psychological safety in each question respectively.

If things are universally fairly positive, look at how you can improve feedback mechanisms, the ability to share ideas and then your reward and recognition systems. If there are pockets of issues, you need to do a deep dive and maybe hold a couple of focus groups to find out the real issues to devise a bigger re-engagement strategy.

Remember, good employee engagement is a key part of the whole candidate experience, too. Neglect issues, and that disengaged workforce can overturn your entire employer brand - because the effects will be felt among your current workforce, and your future one, too. Prospective applicants will be heading to Glassdoor first to see what other people’s experiences have been and sharing reviews through their networks. So ensuring your employees are engaged, to safeguard your current and future reputation, is exceptionally important.