69% of employees are disengaged. How to reverse the trend.

The year was 1990, when I began working part-time as a collection agent at the second largest bank in the U.S. As a new employee, I wanted to prove my worth and impress my manager, so I always arrived to work a bit early and stayed a little later when I was able to. To learn the ropes, management paired me with Ron, a twelve-year collection agent who took me under his wing and told me from the beginning that no matter how hard I would work, I would never get anywhere at the company. Ron explained to me, and I quote, “The bank values people in collections about as much as the charred French fry found at the bottom of an order of onion rings from Burger King.” He further explained that if I did the bare minimum, it would be more than enough to keep my job, and that putting in extra effort would be a waste of my time because no one worth anything would notice. Sadly, from that day forward, I noticed there were many people like Ron who barely did anything all day, and some would snicker when I exceeded my goals and quotas. Unfortunately, Ron was right – management didn’t notice and didn’t seem to care because I noticed that they also did the bare minimum. Seven or eight years later, long after my departure to start my career, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the bank was suffering significant losses and was purchased by another.

 According to an October, 2016 article from Ragan Communications, disengaged employees cost the U.S. economy more than $500 billion every year. Yes, that’s awful, but your role isn’t to save the world – it’s to keep your company profitable and your customers fanatically happy.

I’ve always believed that a company’s culture and its ability to deliver on its brand promise is only as strong as its most disengaged employee. Disengaged employees make costly errors, have little interest in keeping internal and external customers happy, aren’t motivated to do more than the minimum to earn a paycheck, and infect new or vulnerable employees with their attitudes. When disengaged employees talk or meet with customers, it can only lead to unacceptable outcomes including complaints, lost business and damage to your brand’s reputation.

If you suspect one or more employees at your company may be disengaged, consider doing an anonymous culture assessment through your intranet or an online survey platform, such as surveymonkey.com. Ask everyone how they feel about your culture, leadership and quality of teamwork. Ask what they feel your internal strengths and weaknesses are. And also ask the obvious question: Are you happy here? Give them opportunities to explain their answers, especially if they gave low rankings so that you may know what needs to change. The success of the assessment will be based on the invitation coming from the owner or CEO, an opportunity to voice concerns by including a fair amount of open-ended questions, and assurance of anonymity as you don’t want anyone to be apprehensive about speaking their onions.

If less than thirty percent participate in the survey, you may have a low engagement or a culture problem, even if the feedback is generally positive. Employees who genuinely care about their employer are typically more than happy to provide feedback when asked. If this turns out to be your circumstance, you can fall back on the findings of the research in Ragan’s article by offering employees the three things they value most in an employee/employer relationship:

  1. Regular meetings with management
  2. Help employees build their core strengths versus correcting their weaknesses
  3. Give recognition often

Note that the common theme here is positive engagement. And if you think about it, wouldn’t you want to provide these three things to your employees, at the very minimum? How else would they possibly be able to succeed, thrive and help your company grow?

Scott Seroka is one of 29 Certified Brand Strategists in the U.S., and is a Principal of Seroka Brand Development and Strategic Communications.