Most employers worry about employee engagement. And for good reason: One Gallup study found that disengaged employees contribute to as much as $450 billion to $550 billion in productivity losses a year. The cost of even a mildly disengaged worker can hit an organization hard — especially a smaller one.

Now imagine a worst-case scenario: What if you had an employee who wasn’t just uncooperative and minimally productive, but intent on staying at your company to collect a paycheck no matter what? This is the specter of the actively disengaged employee.

How To Spot One

Perhaps the only good thing you can say about actively disengaged employees is that they’re relatively easy to spot. Whereas a typical worker who’s not fully engaged may slack off from time to time, the actively disengaged consistently behave in a variety of counterproductive ways. Examples include:

Displaying a negative attitude most or all of the time. Some people come across as charming curmudgeons — they resist change and grumble a lot. But, once you get to know them, it’s clear they care about their jobs and the organizations they work for.

Actively disengaged employees aren’t like this. There is no soft side, no relenting of their constant, nonstop negativity. When pressed for solutions to departmental or organizational issues, they may throw up their hands and say, “It’s hopeless!” or “You people would never understand!”

Sowing dissent among the ranks. Perhaps the most telling sign of actively disengaged employees is that they’re not content with being unhappy; they’ve got to express that unhappiness regularly and encourage others to feel the same way.

So, if you’ve got someone who’s always complaining to others behind closed doors or over cubicle walls, who’s always the first to roll his or her eyes when a new initiative is announced, you may have an actively disengaged employee. And this person’s negativity could infect otherwise engaged employees and drastically inhibit effective onboarding of new hires.

Showing no interest in helping others … or worse. The success of any organization is largely predicated on teamwork. If everyone can work together toward a common cause, things will get done and progress will be made. When collaboration is scant or difficult, productivity will suffer and it will take a long time to accomplish anything.

The actively disengaged tend to resist teamwork. They’ll either refuse to join collaborative efforts or join them only to complain and disrupt. In worst cases, an actively disengaged worker may “un-train” or “mis-train” others, teaching them how to subvert proper procedures or even perform illegal acts such as stealing property or committing financial fraud.

Where To Start Looking

In a small organization, an actively disengaged employee usually sticks out. But, for midsize to larger employers, extremely problematic workers can burrow deep into their respective departments and eat away at productivity while those in leadership have no idea they exist unless someone speaks up.

And this is where the typical actively disengaged employee might surprise you. According to the 2016 report Actively Disengaged & Staying by human capital consultancy Aon Hewitt:

The most clear demographic relationship for Prisoners [their term for the actively disengaged] … is tenure: more tenured employees are significantly more likely to be Prisoners than less tenured employees.

In fact, per the report, those with 16 to 20 years’ tenure and 21 to 25 years’ tenure have the highest incidences of being actively disengaged. It’s perhaps a cruel irony that the ultimate result of long-term employee retention is sometimes an actively disengaged worker. But that’s what the statistics show. Other potential candidates include employees who have been reassigned to job duties they weren’t originally hired to perform, and those who have been passed over for promotions.

What Actions To Take

Your initial reaction to an actively disengaged employee may be to want to immediately terminate the individual. And, in some cases, this could be the right move.

But, as mentioned, many actively disengaged workers are long-time employees and, as such, may hold management positions. Some may even be executives working under complex employment contracts.

If you believe a higher-level employee is actively disengaged, terminating him or her too quickly could disrupt the person’s departmental operations. You may even expose yourself to a lawsuit if you haven’t established a clear written record of the person’s misbehavior and made good-faith efforts to rectify the situation. (To be clear, this applies to any level employee.)

As with any HR issue, your likely best first step is to investigate. If you’re learning of an actively disengaged employee second-hand, make sure you’re not dealing with an inter-employee conflict in which one party is portraying the other in a poor light. When multiple parties can corroborate stories of the individual’s bad attitude and questionable behavior, you can probably move forward.

The next step is simply to “tear off the bandage” and speak with the employee in question. Use nonaccusatory language and lay out your concerns, providing as many specific details and examples as possible. Naturally, you should let the problematic worker have his or her say as well. Look for opportunities to reach consensus so you can pinpoint the solvable source(s) of the conflict.

In some cases, an actively disengaged employee’s behavior may be a cry for help. Knowingly or otherwise, the person may have been acting out to get others’ attention. Conversely, some actively disengaged workers have no idea that things have gotten so out of hand. A well-handled conversation can serve as a wake-up call.

Once you’ve broached the subject and had the conversation, it’s critical to then establish a clear, agreed-upon action plan going forward. For some employees, this may simply mean that a written document of your discussion will go in his or her personnel record and you’ll expect better behavior going forward. For others, it might mean a set of performance-related objectives and regular check-in meetings with HR throughout the year.

A truly and irreparably disengaged employee, however, may be beyond help. Again, these individuals tend to want to keep their jobs and get paid to do nothing until, perhaps, retirement. For such difficult cases, your conversation may need to lay the groundwork for some sort of mutually agreeable exit strategy to get them out of your organization as quickly as reasonably possible.

Be Mindful

Obviously, there are far more pleasant ideas and concepts related to employee engagement than this one. But employers who fail to be mindful of actively disengaged employees are often the ones most adversely affected when one shows up. Please contact us here for more information about this topic or anything related to improving your organizational effectiveness.