How to Recognize a Disengaged Employee and Do the Right Thing

Young woman at her desk looking bored.

Whether you’ve unintentionally hired a disengaged employee for your admin team or you’ve inherited an underperformer from a previous manager in your workplace, having someone on the team who isn’t pulling their weight can have a big impact.

One bad hire can reduce your productivity, impact employee engagement and waste valuable company resources.

The challenge for hiring managers is that a disengaged employee isn’t always easy to spot. You also don’t want to write off all under-performing administrative professionals some just need a little motivation and support to become more engaged.

How can you tell the difference between an engaged or disengaged worker? And what’s the best way to manage each, whether it's a disengaged employee and someone who has simply not realized his or her potential for success?

First, here are some telltale signs of an employee who is disengaged:

‘The dog ate my TPS report.’

Over time, a lack of engagement can be easy to spot. Keep your eyes open for administrative professionals on your team who make excuses for missing deadlines, doing a sloppy job or just conveniently disappearing when there’s work to do. Excuses can be real or fabricated, and they run the gamut from believable to ludicrous. An occasional personal emergency or other valid reason for not completing a task is fine, but when the excuses start to sound less and less plausible (your assistant spilled coffee on his pants and had to change clothes … for the fifth time this month), you have a disengaged worker on your hands.

‘This is too hard!’

Whether you call it whining, grousing or grumbling, chronic complaining can be an earmark of an employee's workplace disengagement. The other danger of someone who complains constantly is that it’s infectious. Misery loves company, so a complainer often drags engaged workers into their net of negativity.

‘I’ll think about that tomorrow.’

Some people have perfected the art of putting things off. Their mantra echoes the witty and wry words of Mark Twain: "Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow." A disengaged employee like this can have a hard time getting started. They end up pushing against deadlines and working to the last minute to complete their workplace tasks, in the process jeopardizing outcomes for the people they support at the company. Procrastination by poorly performing administrative professionals also compromises the interdependencies so critical to strong teamwork by the admin team overall. It cuts into productivity and frustrates conscientious coworkers.

‘It’s not my job.’

When the pressure’s on and everyone’s pitching in to get an urgent project done, a disengaged worker will shy away from added responsibilities. Of course, this could be a sign of someone who is genuinely too busy with another critical task to help out. It’s relatively easy to figure out if this is the case by asking what the team member is working on.

However, not pitching in also could be another sign of an employee who lacks the skills to take on new challenges, or who is wasting time. If some of your administrative employees spend an inordinate amount of time surfing the internet or sneak out of the office early on a regular basis, it’s probably a red flag that they lack engagement or have a poor work ethic.

‘I am número uno.’

Do you have an administrative team member who is constantly badgering you about a salary boost or promotion, but who hasn’t actually done the work or gained the experience to warrant either one? They may even threaten to leave the company if they don’t get what they want — and in some cases, you might want to let them go (see the guidelines below). These can be signs of a disengaged worker.

Motivating an underperformer at work

When it comes to addressing a lack of employee engagement, you may be tempted to fire the person from your organization. But this should be a last resort. Before you take this drastic step, consider other alternatives:

  • Get to know your problem employees. Perhaps their attitudes or behaviors are the result of personal issues, lack of confidence or inadequate on-the-job training from your employer. Or they may simply be in the wrong job. If you attempt to understand them and work with them to make sure their needs are met, you have a chance of turning them around.
  • Listen to what they have to say. Engage in active listening to make sure your administrative staff member grasps that they are being heard. Negative behavior is often the result of feeling as if our complaints and demands are falling on deaf ears. If you do start seeing more engagement, give the employee some recognition and see if the shift continues.
  • Inform disengaged employees about their lack of performance. It’s important to diplomatically let an administrative team member know that their work is not up to par, and why, as soon as you notice it. Waiting and hoping the behavior will change on its own doesn’t give your employee a chance to correct anything. If they greet your intervention with genuine concern and say they have the desire to change, establish some clearly defined and attainable goals and timelines for them and closely monitor their progress. (This is probably a good time to consult with human resources so everything is documented.) Be positive and encouraging, and suggest concrete ways they can improve, such as additional training, more education or collaborative activities.
  • Know your next steps. Most managers don’t want to fire someone. But if the situation continues to get worse, it’s time to plan your strategy, working with your human resources and legal departments. Make sure you document instances of disruptive behavior and poor performance along the way, as suggested above. You might want to consider progressive discipline consisting of performance reviews and verbal and written warnings. If, over time, the employee continues to behave in an unacceptable manner, termination from your organization may be the only solution.

The contributions of administrative professionals are vital to a top-performing, efficient organization. The majority do a superb job every day. Because the subpar work quality of a single disengaged employee can affect your group's overall effort, it is to your benefit to make sure that every member of your admin team is firing on all cylinders.

For your next round of hires, consider a professional staffing agency. Contact us when you’re ready to post open positions for administrative professionals at your organization.

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