7 steps to take when a star employee disengages

Sometimes a great employee begins to act differently. Here’s how you should proceed.

7 steps to take when a star employee disengages
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It is one of management’s greatest nightmares. One of your finest employees has suddenly turned cold. The person who did more than their share, came up with great ideas, enthusiastically helped others, and lifted the spirits of the team suddenly seems disinterested in even doing their own job. They used to be the first one there, and the last to leave, but lately have been coming in late. In the past they rarely called in sick, something they’ve started to do regularly. More concerningly, they’re no longer doing their share of the work. As a manager you have to do something.


There are steps you can take to get to find out what is going on and hopefully get them back on track:

Don’t let it slide

The worst thing to do is to hope that the employee comes around and the problem works itself out. If anything, it will get worse and their actions will likely affect the others. Not only will morale suffer, but so will your credibility as a manager if other employees see an obvious problem that you are not willing to act upon. “These are people who were high performers,” says Brad Deutser, president of Deutser Clarity Institute. “You owe it to them, and to the organization, to be direct and help lift them up. They were great before; give them the chance to be great again.”

Don’t make assumptions about the cause

There may be many reasons that this person is acting the way they are. In some instances, this change may not even have anything to do with their job. Perhaps they have found a new passion or purpose in life. The work that they found challenging and meaningful in the past may hold little interest any more. There may be something going on in their personal lives that we don’t know anything about. Keeping this in mind will help you approach a conversation with them with an open mind.

Pick a time and place to have a conversation

Think carefully about how you want this conversation to go. Then try to ensure that you’re setting yourself up for success. Calling them into your office could be an intimidating way to start an open and authentic conversation, so find a place that will be more comfortable for them. Pick a time when there are no looming deadlines or work that requires a high level of focus, so you can both focus on the discussion at hand.

Be firm but sensitive

This is where having a high degree of emotional intelligence becomes so crucial for the manager. Start the conversation on a positive note by talking about the person’s past performance and thank them for going over and above in their role. But only do so if you can be sincere. If they sense you are being phony, you risk ruining the chance of having a real and open conversation. “Be grateful for their contributions and work to link your conversation to your company’s values and behaviors and their performance within those expectations,” says Deutser. “This takes the pressure off of them and removes the feeling of being attacked personally.”


Only mention what you have observed directly. Never make interpretations or assumptions about what has caused their change in behavior. Leave that up to them. In this critical conversation, it is imperative to use open-ended questions and comments.

Practice active listening

At this point, remind yourself that you are simply trying to find out what is going on and to do this you have to actively listen. To make sure you have heard correctly, repeat back to the person what you have heard them say and ask them to clarify things you aren’t clear about. Wait a few seconds before responding to them to let them know you are taking in what they said seriously. This few second pause also gives them the opportunity for further self-reflection and to possibly share more information with you.

If leaving the organization is the best option, make it a win-win

If it turns out that their interests or future plans no longer align with those of the organization, thank them for their contributions, wish them the best, and give them your blessing for their future. Do whatever you can to make their departure as pleasant an experience as possible. It will leave a good impression of your organization for them and for the staff they are leaving behind.

If the problem can be solved within, come up with a joint plan

If the problem is in their personal lives, ask them what they need from the organization. If it has to do with the workplace, first ask what they feel they need to turn things around. Make sure you’re not making any offers or any promises that you cannot realistically follow through on, however. And if their ambitions or desires fall outside of what is possible in their present workplace, the best thing to do is be honest, and support them in moving on—with your blessings.

About the author

Harvey Deutschendorf is an emotional intelligence expert, author and speaker. To take the EI Quiz go to