How Much Disengaged Employees Really Cost You

Your disengaged workers are costing you more than $2,000 per employee per year, plus affecting productivity and overall office morale. Learn why disengagement happens and how to stop it.
October 22, 2013

A recent Gallup Poll disclosed startling statistics about the state of the nation's employee base.

The results in the State of the American Workplace show that 70 percent of U.S. workers say they feel fully disengaged from their workplace. Drill down to a state or two, and you find similar numbers. For example, 54.7 percent of workers in Washington state are "not engaged" and another 17.5 percent are "actively disengaged" with their jobs.

"It is a national problem and not confined to any one sector," says Shannon Mullen, founder of Mullen Marketing Search.

Let's look at what disengaged may really mean, and what can be done about it.

The Cost Of Disengagement

First, the idea of the disengaged employee brings with it the notion of costs. Lost productivity. Hindered efficiency. Employers want to lock down the problem because disengaged employees lose them money.

The high end of the liabilities that disengaged employees create amounts to hundreds of billions per year, according to Brian Braudis, a leadership and management consultant. A recent ADP study put the cost at $2,246 per disengaged employee per year.

"It's also important to consider not only the impact of employee disengagement on the employing company, but also on the overall economy," says Joe Albano, principal at Logika International.

"For example, if the employee at the company you purchase raw materials from is actively disengaged, there is an obvious impact on the supplying company, but there will also be an impact on the consuming companies," Albano says. "Multiple impact to multiple companies. Compound this impact over the entire supply chain and the insidious effect of disengagement becomes clearer."

Symptoms Of Disengagement

Two categories of disengagement in the Gallup poll are "not engaged" and "actively disengaged." In the former, the employee is simply passionless about a job. In the latter, they're seeking to act out, to undermine a team or company because of their dissatisfaction with work.

When looking for the symptoms of disengagement on either level, there are some commonalities that employees often cite, according to Albano and other experts.

  • Your employees do not experience their work as being personally meaningful and purposeful.

  • Workers do not have a sense of self-determination and autonomy.

  • Staff does not believe that rules at work are applied equally and fairly.

  • Employees do not get feedback that they consider to be constructive and useful.

  • Members of your teams do not have supportive relationships with superiors and co-workers.

  • Individuals do not feel like they are growing as people.

Some root causes of disengagement, as suggested by Joey Price, CEO of Jumpstart HR, include:

1. Lack of training and development opportunities. If employees don't feel they're growing, then the natural opposite of growth is regression or feeling stale.

2. Money. Salary issues are always going to be a part of the conversation when it comes to why employees are dissatisfied, but it's not always about base pay. It can be the 3 percent raise cycle, as opposed to the typical 10 percent bump for a new job. It can be about benefits, too.

3. Employee-employer friction. Companies who aren't accountable for problematic bosses often feel the effect of disengagement because people don't perform as readily for people they don't like.

Beyond an employee that's identifiably acting out, however, how does one pin down these kinds of symptoms and head off disengagement before it takes root?

Solutions To Engage Workers

"I like to say that disengagement shouldn't be a punishable offense," says David Zinger, founder and host of the Global Employee Engagement Network. "It should be a trigger for a conversation."

Zinger has worked on worker engagement in some of the toughest workplaces around the world—platinum mines in South Africa, for example.

His advice to employers is to start and then keep the conversation going. He suggests saying something like, "Let's talk about work. What's it like? What gives you energy? What takes it away? What for you is a waste of time and what can we do about that?"

Another solution is to train your managers to fight disengagement. As Braudis puts it in his recent white paper, "Managers are the linchpins in workforce engagement. Managers are embedded with the employees." Your managers need to connect, build relationships that acknowledge employee strengths, and create projects to use and enhance those talents.

With thousands of dollars suggested to be at stake per employee per year, those experiences and how they energize a workplace, or fail to, are a significant part of the bottom line.

So whether disengagement is a new thing, or an old thing dressed up with a new phrase, it pays to monitor where on the scale your team is, and to ensure a conversation is underway to either fight off disengagement, or repair any damage that has been done.

James O'Brien, PhD, covers business, technology, social media, marketing, the profession of writing, and news. His new book on writing, 'The Indie Writer's Survival Guide,' is available at

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