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Manager unsure what to do about disengaged, rude employee

“I took one of my employees out on a meeting at a client site recently and had a really disappointing experience. My employee was texting someone repeatedly on his phone during the meeting. And while that was rude by itself, the real problem was that he was not engaging with the client or otherwise involved in the meeting. I needed him to really listen and be involved in the conversation, as we are a startup and we expect our employees to share our excitement about the growth of this company. At this point, it would be easy enough to fire this employee but I see a lot of potential there — if only he would get involved with the work. I have tried talking with him before about his interests, but didn’t get very far.”

We’ve all seen the clock-puncher in the office, the one who does the bare minimum, and seems completely uninterested in what they’re doing and who they’re working for.

This can be very frustrating for managers who are often too pressed for time to deal with disengaged workers. But the ramifications of disengagement extend far and wide, creating serious and sometimes widespread problems with productivity, quality, absenteeism, lost business opportunities, project completion, workloads, relationships with customers and problems with morale, not to mention turnover.

According to the latest Gallup Poll on employee engagement, the percentage of workers in the U.S. who are “engaged,” that is, really committed to their work and enthusiastic about it, is only about 34%. And believe it or not, that’s actually high, among the highest levels since Gallup began surveys on the topic around the year 2000.

The poll also looked at the percentage of “actively disengaged” workers (those with negative work experiences) and found that to be about 13% and the remainder, 53%, were not engaged, meaning they didn’t feel connected “emotionally or cognitively.”

Disengagement can be difficult to spot because employees can feel disconnected to your organization but still perform because of a strong work ethic.

In your situation, however, the problem is obvious and made more complicated by the texting during the meeting.

“There are two separate things going on with this employee,” says Kevin Kruse, founder and chief executive officer of Leadx, an online learning platform on leadership development and author of several books, including “Employee Engagement 2.0” and “Great Leaders Have No Rules.” “Regarding the use of his phone in a client meeting, that’s an opportunity for the manager to give effective feedback. Although we might think it’s obvious, the manager should speak to the employee about phone use during the meeting, the impact on the client (perception of rudeness), and get an agreement that it won’t happen again.”

But then there is the problem of engagement or the perception of engagement. You should try one more time to have a conversation about his commitment to his work, Kruse says. “Everyone is different, but usually the big drivers of engagement are growth, recognition, and future vision. Does the employee feel like he’s growing and being challenged? Does he believe he can fulfill his career goals at the company? “

In addition: “Does he feel like the company recognizes his efforts and achievements? Does the employee believe the company has a bright future? By asking questions like these, you should be able to uncover what does, or would, motivate this person.”

To drill down a little more, you really can’t open discussion about engagement without first talking to him about his feelings about the job at your company. “It’s about making a real emotional connection with the employee so that you really understand where he’s coming from rather than just focusing on the negative client meeting,” says David Millner, an occupational psychologist and consulting partner at HR Curator in the UK, which works with companies on performance, employee engagement and organizational development.

Be sure to take time before your discussion, though, to look at your own behavior in relation to this employee, Millner says. Most employees are looking to be inspired (given direction about expectations and having open and honest communications); to be respected and recognized for their efforts, treated fairly and to be rewarded — not just with pay — but with career and growth opportunities.

“The key question to consider before speaking with the employee is what have you honestly done in each of these categories with that employee? “

Once you’ve identified the issues and looked at what has and hasn’t worked, be sure to take some time over coffee, off-site, to demonstrate your commitment to having an uninterrupted dialogue. “The agenda for me is all about understanding how the employee feels about work, their job and themselves – not initially about the client meeting,” Millner says.

You will want to cover such issues as, how is the job going for them? What’s working well? What’s frustrating? How does he see himself progressing? And discuss what you can do to help, he says. “And that’s not just in their development but perhaps reflect on those areas relating to inspiring, respecting and rewarding people. Is there something that you believe you should be doing more of?”

From there, he says, you can progress to their thoughts about how the recent client meeting went. “You can share your perceptions and expectations related to the meeting and come to a conclusion about next steps and what should happen now at subsequent client meetings, perhaps with some coaching and reinforcement from you as leader/manager,” he says.

Obviously, talking this through is tough. “The challenge with all of these types of conversations is that they aren’t easy and that’s why most leaders/managers may try to avoid having them,” Millner says.

“The role of leaders/managers is to ensure that all employees are truly enjoying their work (it will positively impact on the customer experience), that they can see ‘what’s in it for them’ in terms of personal and job fulfilment, that they can make a difference in terms of making their organization and their team a great place to work and finally what can they give in terms of enhanced performance and what they will get back from the organization as a result.”

While you try to talk this through, some experts emphasize that there is a point where you need to be clear that a change is required.

Jill Christensen, an employee engagement expert and author of a book, “If Not You, Who? Cracking the Code of Employee Disengagement,” suggests that you end the meeting by letting the employee know that you see a lot of potential in them. “End by letting the employee know — again — that you see a lot of potential in them and would love for them to be on the team, as long as they quickly improve this behavior,” she says.

“And be sure to document the conversation in writing so you have evidence that you tried to work with the employee in the event you need to terminate them.”

Take a look at what your goals were prior to the meeting with the client and why you wanted this employee to go on this particular client meeting, says Sam Silverstein, author of “No More Excuses: The Five Accountabilities for Personal and Organizational Growth,” who consults with companies on accountability and organizational culture. “In my opinion, there has to be a noticeable change in the way this individual handles himself or it’s time to make another decision.”

At a time of low unemployment, it’s important to think about engagement as early as possible. “Ultimately engagement begins when you recruit employees,” Kruse says.

“When it comes to ‘sharing excitement,’ I call that “employee engagement” which is just a fancy way of saying the employees actually care about the company and its goals.”

“When employees care, they are far more likely to give discretionary effort, heroic service, and stay in the company longer,” he says.

The key is that screening for engagement should actually start in the recruitment process, during the interview. Can the candidate share a time when they were really motivated at work? Why does the company’s mission excite the candidate? How do they feel about the work they’ll be doing? The hiring manager should be looking for signs of an authentic emotional response in these answers.

Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585) 249-9295 or by e-mail at kadriscoll@aol.com.

About Kathleen Driscoll