When Employees Check Out

The federal workforce is one of the most diversely talented working groups in the United States. Their ability to innovate, identify costs savings and more is often tied to the pride they have in their work as well as a sense of feeling connected to a bigger purpose.

When something alters their ability to do the type of work they enjoy, sometimes federal employees will feel a sense of disconnection to their job, team and organization. Consequently, a lack of interest may set in and employee morale plummets.

This concept of low employee morale is often called employee engagement. According to a November 2015 Fed News Radio article, OPM defined employee engagement as “an employee’s sense of purpose readily seen in their approach, dedication and level of effort toward work.” In a nutshell, an employees’ sense of attachment about their workplace contributions is part of their identity and a direct correlation to the passion they feel about their work.

There are well-known signs of employees who may feel disconnected at work. Some examples include:

  • Lack of participation in work group
  • Concerns about their work environment
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Surfing their mobile devices for job opportunities
  • Limited participation in group activities
  • Arriving at work daily feeling “checked out”
  • Lack of recognition for their efforts

These concepts are often a challenge for federal agencies to identify, monitor as well as improve. Yet, it takes a forward-leaning and collaborative approach to re-connect with employees. Moreover, an organization’s work environment is one of the key indicators to an employee’s identity. If a workplace environment is toxic or not supportive of employees’ goals, then it will become difficult to rally behind their agency’s mission.

So how does one improve employee engagement? Take time to assess how and what you communicate to employees about the organization, professional development opportunities as well as employee recognition programs to start. Also, encourage your employees to take part in annual workplace employee surveys to share insights about their organizational perceptions. Lastly, create as well as implement an employee engagement action plan that truly is “employee-centric” to create an effective change in the workplace.

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Mark Hammer

For reasons that escape me, the folks who wave the flag for “employee engagement” seem to live on another planet from the folks who study burnout, even though they are the two ends of the same continuum.

People who burn out are frequently involved in publicly-funded human services, and of the type who would score high on Perry & Wise’s “public service motivation” scale. They entered their job with about as much engagement as one could hope for in any line of work. But at a certain point, they have the pervasive sense that the client-service goals they’ve set are simply not being met, that they are swimming against a current that undermines their ability to do the things they are there to do, and that nothing they do matters anymore. The engagement came with the employee, and it was why they chose their field in the first place. The burnout, on the other hand, was created. Sometimes, it can be because expectations were too unrealistically high, but more often because the resources or job roles at their disposal made it impossible to achieve enough of those objectives to maintain engagement. They have the deep feeling that their effort (and enthusiasm) is simply not justified anymore.

Certainly one of the systemic problems that government agencies face is that they are, by nature, large entities. And the larger the entity, the more specialized the job becomes, the less participation people have in their organizational role as they imagine it to be, and most importantly, the less opportunity they have to see the fruits of their effort realized. They become cogs in a big machine. Not *unimportant* cogs, mind you. And the increased specialization may well make the organization more efficient and cost-effective. But by distancing the employee from ever seeing the consequences of what they have been dedicating themselves to, it becomes harder and harder to view that effort as justified by its visible and experienced consequences.

Consultants wave the flag for improving engagement as a means to enhance client service. And while that link may be true to a limited extent, the important link is the manner in which experiencing meaningful and visible consequences of one’s efforts provides a sense that such effort was, and remains, justified. The “thank you” cements the engagement every bit as much, if not more, than the engagement is likely to earn a “thank you”. Recognition is not unimportant, but is not always enough to take you the full distance. It’s a bit like receiving I.O.U.s and discount coupons; they can only pile up so high before they start to feel valueless.

So from an OD and SHRM perspective, the question then becomes “how do I/we engineer employees’ jobs so that they have more of the experience of justifying their effort by witnessing the consequences/fruits of that effort, without impeding the organization’s ability to accomplish those outcomes?”.

That’s a tough one. Clearly the urge to make jobs specialized cogs in a big efficient machine does not come from nowhere. In terms of corporate objectives, it is the natural response. At the same time, it runs somewhat counter to the people-management needs of the organization. Disengaged staff is hardly a source of effective and productive organizations. But the business lines and mandate of a given organization – not to mention their budget and timelines – does not necessarily permit doing what is needed to keep all staff regularly in touch with the consequences of their efforts. Moreover, many government initiatives have long time-arcs, such that people have to work at something for a while until there actually ARE consequences. We complicate this even further by noting that changes in government or senior leadership can render projects with long time-arcs suddenly moot or otherwise halted, such that years of effort that may have felt justified are instantly worthless.

So the overarching objective is to find the “sweet spot”, whereby both organizational efficiencies and maintenance of justification of effort by employees are optimized as much as is feasible without sacrificing too much of the other. Both bureaucratic leaders and individual employees have to have a good answer to the question “Why bother?” each and every morning. Because if they don’t, you can expect them to check out.

Tracey Batacan

Mark, I appreciate your comments. Also, people look at this topic differently and have varying views on it as well. Basically, no one approach fits the mark. Employee engagement is something that each agency needs to focus on to meet their employees needs.

Juana Williams

Wow! Does this really happen? “Also, encourage your employees to take part in annual workplace employee surveys to share insights about their organizational perceptions. Lastly, create as well as implement an employee engagement action plan that truly is “employee-centric” to create an effective change in the workplace.”
Maybe I am working for the wrong state government or Gov. agency because this doesn’t happen here! Interesting column.

Mark Hammer

It depends on the line of work, and role. There are plenty of jobs where all that is really needed to sustain employee enthusiasm and effort is a respectful paycheque, acceptable working conditions, and decent treatment from supervisors. And there are many jobs where people do get to witness the human consequences of their efforts, and have the sense of satisfaction that sustains motivation. I don’t know if that’s a consequence of organizational or job design, but it happens and thank goodness it does. However, there are many other jobs/roles where the connection to outcomes is shakier or entirely absent, and simply having “a good job” is not enough to rev up the engines.

I’m in the process of tidying up loose ends on a project I was seconded to work on for the past 18 months. Our team was getting very close to entering the operational stage, after 16 months of working on, developing, and testing the methodology. The legislation we were operating under was not perfect, but was about 90% of what was needed. A new government arrived and, displeased with that 10%, voted to essentially render the existing legislation moot. So, the legislators are off gathering info in preparation for drafting new legislation, and in the meantime our team was sunsetted because, after all, there was no legislation for us to operate under, hence no budget for maintaining us (i.e., Why is that box on the org chart still there?). We assume that someone will pick up the ball and continue running with it, 2 or 3 years hence, but right now everything we worked towards is being packed up and archived. I’m proud of the work we did, but where is my evidence that it was “worth it”? To be fair, it wasn’t the fault of the organization, whom I feel were supportive, and I don’t blame the legislators for feeling that the legislation could stand some needed improvement. But, when a given government decides to put something on the back burner, sometimes there isn’t much the agency can do to fix that.

Similarly, I’ve worked on, and designed, employee surveys that gathered exquisite data that could have been a goldmine for organizational research. But nothing came of it. The data languishes, inaccessible, and all the effort in using my extensive training in planning out a data source that would be revelatory was for naught. So why bother? Why care? It’s like getting all gussied up and losing weight for a date that stands you up all the time.

I’m glad you don’t experience that, Juana, and am pleased you’re not alone in your experience. But some jobs can end up being like I described, with the expected motivational consequences. People CAN say to themselves “Well, maybe next time”. But after enough “next times”, checking out is the natural response. I don’t want to seem jaundiced. I do recognize that it is a very real challenge that sometimes the best leadership and best intentions can’t overcome.

Tracey Batacan

Juana I appreciate your comments. There are many who believe that surveys may not result in action taken to improve federal work place environments. At the same time they may serve an initial purpose to help identify issues with the understanding that the process does not stop there. Leadership input on tangible action plans that focus on improving employee morale and work environments are a critical part of the process. Thanks for sharing.

JC Smith

Hello. It would be good “if” employers had ” annual workplace employee surveys.” Sadly, I’ve never seen one in my place of employment (4.5 years) nor in my previous employer (7 years).

Rita Vaz

It is unproductive when an employee continuously works in a toxic work environment that is not corrected by the employee’s Agency. When the employee’s agency portrays conflicting intentions the employee wants to check out. On one side the agency might be touting its intention to improve collaborative efforts but on the other hand the agency is doing absolutely nothing to ensure that the toxic work environment does not continue. Or the agency opts to wait for the employee to file EEO or MSPB complaints and then waits on their determinations to address the toxic environment. Such actions compromise the Agency’s integrity and show that it is not interested in taking responsibility for the existing toxic work environment. In such a scenario, employee morale will not improve, there will not be a boost in productivity and trust issues will continue.