All the signs were there. One of our employees (let’s call her Jessica) had been unusually quiet. Her work quality was slipping; she was often the last to arrive in the morning, and among the first to leave. Jessica was disengaged.
There are lots of studies that document the perils of employee disengagement. A 2017 report from The Engagement Institute revealed that disengaged employees cost U.S. companies between $450 and $550 billion each year. And a Gallup study showed that organizations that rank in the top quartile of employee engagement are 21% more profitable than those in the bottom.
A disengaged employee is mentally and emotionally disconnected from their work. As an employer, when you see it happening, it’s easy to consider dismissal. But if you’ve hired an otherwise-strong team member—someone who’s smart, fits the culture, and has a good track record—training or reassignment is often a better solution. Here are four things you should consider before you give that employee the boot.
Step one: Don’t make assumptions
Personal struggles, health issues, and even a behind-the-scenes conflict in your organization can dramatically affect work behavior. That’s why it’s crucial to start with a kind and honest conversation. If the problem isn’t personal, there’s another root cause.
Someone like Jessica, for example, might not have the necessary skills or knowledge for her role or doesn’t have the time and resources to execute her responsibilities. She might be uninspired or under-challenged, or doesn’t realize she’s underperforming. Perhaps she’s not clear on what the company expects from her, and there isn’t enough incentive for her to perform at her best.
Disengagement is rarely a one-way street, so examine your company’s role in the matter. Be honest when you ask yourself—from dysfunctional teams to low pay to distracted leaders, how has your organization contributed to the issue?
Step two: explore training opportunities
If an employee needs to expand their skills, training is a great option. You don’t want to lose a strong team member simply because he needs to master data analysis or conflict resolution. Remember that training can cover both technical and soft skills.
The only downside is that continuing education can be expensive. In 2017, U.S. companies spent over $90 billion on training and development. According to author and leadership consultant Ron Carucci, training is most powerful when there’s a proven skill gap or knowledge deficit. Any program you provide should have a clear purpose and end goal and directly serve the company’s strategic priorities.
“If you are going to invest millions of dollars into company training, be confident it is addressing a strategic learning need,” Carucci writes in Harvard Business Review.
Step three: Consider an internal move
You’ve determined that your employee has the right skills and knowledge. Yet she’s still not working to her capacity. If she takes responsibility for the situation and wants to solve it with you, a lateral move could work well. “Helping people develop skills, gain experience, and manage their careers is vital to keep them engaged and productive,” career management executive Phyllis Millikan told Business News Daily.
At my company, JotForm, I’ve learned that smart people need thorny problems to solve. Whether they’re designers, developers, project managers, or customer service reps, they want to keep stretching their abilities. Sometimes a disengaged employee will thrive in a new role with fresh challenges. Just be sure the change satisfies more than professional wanderlust. It’s easy to feel like the grass is greener on the other side of the office, but a shift should leverage skills and aptitudes that the employee isn’t currently using, and be beneficial to both the employee and the company.
This is exactly what happened with Jessica. She joined a new team in a different role, and her productivity soared. I’m glad we addressed it before we lost her to another organization, or her performance declined to the point where we had to let her go, which leads me to the final step—firing.
Step four: It’s not us; it’s you
I still remember the first time I fired someone. I tossed and turned and barely slept a wink the night before. Yet, I knew it was the right call. Once you’ve considered training, new roles, and other HR techniques, such as a performance improvement plan (PIP), dismissal is the end of the road. And if you’ve reached this juncture, it should never be a surprise to your employee.
Performance metrics, confidential discussions with a manager or team member, and written documentation can help you make the final decision, but don’t ignore your intuition. “You know it in your gut sooner than your head can catch up,” Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix, told Harvard Business Review. If you’re still on the fence, McCord recommends asking yourself the following three questions:
- When you imagine your perfect team, is this person on it?
- Imagine there’s an opening for this employee’s job. Would you hire them now?
- If the employee told you they were leaving, how much would you fight to keep them?
Combine your instincts with rational evaluation, and trust that you know what’s best for your company. Few things damage morale more than a checked-out or toxic employee, but a good person with a spark of curiosity—no matter how dim it may be now—is worth the investment.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections and more.