Disengaged employees who don’t want to move or improve are a big challenge for HR

Author: PM editorial | Date: 14 Dec 2016

Having too many ‘workplace prisoners’ is like trying to move your boat with the anchor dropped, says Aon Hewitt

A new report from Aon Hewitt has outlined the difficulties faced by organisations with too many ‘workplace prisoners’ – employees who are completely disengaged but have no intention of looking for a new job.
 
These could be people who have been in the same job for a long time and don’t want the hassle of finding a new job; someone on a high salary who doesn’t think they’ll get paid as well elsewhere; or one of the two-fifths of workers in Asia Pacific who are worried about their retirement funds.
 
According to Aon Hewitt’s report, Actively Disengaged and Staying, trying to achieve your goals with too many workplace prisoners is “like trying to move your boat with the anchor still dropped.”
 
HR professionals and their CHROs have a critical role in managing prisoners, says the report. They must teach their leaders how to identify disengaged employees of all types, and attempt to solve the problem.
 
The report says the chances of someone becoming actively disengaged increase over time. An individual who has worked at an organisation less than a year has an approximately 6 per cent chance of being a prisoner. In the one- to two-year tenure category, the incidence rate increases to 6.3 per cent and climbs until it reaches a high of 17.1 per cent for staff employed for more than 26 years.
 
The phenomenon of workplace prisoners is by no means specific to traditional nine-to-five occupations. In 2000, English Premier League football club Chelsea signed Dutch defender Winston Bogarde on a contract worth around US$50,000 a week. After a new manager arrived, he barely played for the club during his four years there and was asked why he didn’t move on to another team where he would get a game. His diplomatic response was: “Why should I throw fifteen million Euros away when it is already mine?”
 
So what can (non-football) managers do about it? Aon Hewitt’s study suggests addressing the issue head on with the disengaged employee. “Let the employee know you see their vast potential is unrealised,” it suggests. “Ask them why they think that is. In many cases, the prisoner may not even be aware their effort is sub-par and the conversation you have may surprise you.
 
“Go a little further and ask about their preferences. Focus on a few key elements of their engagement. Ask about their feelings on whether or not they are sufficiently recognised, what gives them a feeling of personal accomplishment at work and outside work, and discuss how they want their career to develop.
 
“If they can’t get excited about these topics, then a more difficult conversation has to happen around whether or not this role is the right fit for them or if another job would be better. These can be difficult conversations to have, but are important for both you and the prisoner in the long term.”