The tough work of reengagement

Recently my husband was telling me about a situation with an employee and he said ‘I think it’s impossible to reengage someone who has become totally disengaged.’ My first reaction was excitement – my non-HR husband is using terms like ‘employee engagement’! I am an HR influencer! Beyond that, though, I started to wonder. Nothing is more disheartening to morale than to have a previously engaged employee check out. A truly engaged employee, the kind who routinely goes above and beyond and is a culture leader among her peers, does not disengage easily. Once she does, it’s hard to get her back. How we react will determine whether or not we can get that employee back.

When that star employee first checks out, we often overlook his behavior. Many an employee coasts for a long time on an old reputation. (This can work in the reverse, and when a previously troublesome employee turns it around, it can take a while for management to clue in and start to value that employee’s contribution.) But we often give the newly disengaged employee a pass on poor behavior. We remember his past successes and ignore current failings. This is not fair to the employee or to his coworkers. People will see someone getting away with doing less and less, and it will effect overall morale. Unfortunately, by the time management wakes up to the employee’s dissatisfaction and dissatisfactory performance, it’s often too late. The employee has felt her concerns were ignored, and management has suddenly woken up to the subpar performance. The employee has gone from being a star to having a corrective action plan, and no one is quite clear on how that happened.

We can avoid this by getting involved and noticing behavior that is actually happening, not making assumptions based on past performance. If a top employee is suddenly doing the bare minimum, we need to ask why. And then we need to really listen to the answer. This can be tough – sometimes the employee’s complaints seem totally unmerited, and we want to rush to defend the company’s actions. Other times, something has gone wrong and we want to blithely promise to fix the issue without thinking through what that might actually look like. Either way, we need to take our time. First, honor the employee with the dignity of being heard. Be that safe space that allows an employee to own their feelings of frustration without trying to solve the problem. Once you are sure that you have heard the employee, only then can you work together on a plan.

If we truly want to reengage that employee, we can’t go for the quick fix. When a previously engaged employee checks out, they’ve often experienced a sense of betrayal by the company, whether real or imagined. Building trust takes time, but the effort is worth it, because when that employee does reengage, she is likely to be one of the strongest brand ambassadors your company can have.

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