No employee will ever be engaged all the time. But employers take comfort in the fact that routinely disengaged employees usually leave in search of opportunities that suit them better, clearing the way for the hiring of fresh talent.
Unfortunately, 8 percent of employees stay on, despite feeling unmotivated, disengaged and generally negative about their employers, an October published by Aon Hewitt found. The report referred to these employees as "workplace prisoners," and noted that they tend to be long-tenured. Among workers with 26 years or more at their companies, in fact, 17.1 percent are just such "prisoners," the report found.
And that sets up a quandary for employers: Such employees may be seen as being loyal to the organization; but if they're not engaged, they're holding up company progress instead of contributing to it.
These employees aren't going anywhere any time soon, so it's up to employers to re-engage them and get the most from this veteran talent.
If so-called prisoner-employees are so unhappy, why do they stay? Often, their retention is less about company loyalty and more about comfort. That's because these employees tend to be some of the highest paid. In one firm studied in the Aon Hewitt report, 61 percent of unhappy employees reported receiving salaries above the market median for their jobs, while just 27 percent received below the median.
Pay, then, is one of the largest obstacles to overcome. Because these people are paid so well already, they haven't much incentive to change their ways.
At the same time, these employees are likely bored. After all, a 2016 of U.S. office workers conducted by Udemy found that 43 percent of all respondents queried said they were bored at work.
And this boredom is likely more rampant among employees who have been with their companies for years. While many employers focus on onboarding and retaining new talent, loyal employees often get less attention and are overlooked because they're less likely to leave.
In addition, these employees have experience and understand how their companies operate, so there's less of an immediate need to offer them learning and development opportunities.
And that leads to another major challenge in re-engaging loyal employees: their attitude. These employees are used to doing things a certain way and may think they already know everything they need to know to perform their jobs well.
So, what to do? Engaging tenured employees won't be easy, but it is possible. Here's how:
1. Change perceptions.
Before employees can change their actions, they need to change their attitudes — and, here, employers can help. Loyal employees may think they're more productive than everyone else and feel valuable to their employer, when in reality, they're lagging behind.
In fact, a July 2015 of U.S. office workers conducted by Workfront found that 81 percent considered themselves the most productive among their coworkers, and 55 percent considered themselves more productive than their managers. The message here is that people think they work harder than their neighbors, but that's not always the case, especially among disengaged employees.
New challenges may be exactly what prisoner-employees need to realize they haven't experienced everything and that they aren't working to their fullest potential. Challenge them with new responsibilities, more work or even assignments to mentor newer employees. That way, they feel valued. At the same time, they'll have to step up their game to get it all done.
2. Introduce new skills.
Tenured employees may be bored because they've been doing the same things and using the same skills for years. And, unfortunately, they aren't offered learning opportunities as often as is newer, less experienced talent. But those opportunities might be exactly what they need. In fact, 80 percent of employees in the Udemy survey said learning new skills would make them more engaged.
Because long-term employees already have a handle on the skills needed to succeed within the organization, they are prime candidates to specialize in a particular skill or niche, learn new trends and technology or branch out into new areas that their company's personnel haven't yet explored.
Use platforms like to engage employees in the learning process, using social tools and experimental teaching methods, instead of just watching an online course or seminar.
Don't just offer employees courses and webinars and allow them to sit on the information. Challenge them to develop an action plan on how to use the new information to innovate and benefit the company. Then, let them lead the charge. That's how to make a learning opportunity into a special project, not just another course the prisoner-employee needs to complete.
3. Ask for representation.
Brand ambassadors are typically some of the most engaged employees, but asking loyal employees to serve in the role can kill two birds with one stone. As representatives of the company, disengaged employees will feel a renewed sense of dedication and want to put their best face forward. By sharing all the great things about the organization and talking with new perspective talent, they'll remember what they loved about the job in the first place.
At the same time, these employees may feel honored that they are wanted for the job — they'll feel special and recognized for their years of loyalty to the company.
This strategy doesn't hurt talent acquisition either. After all, the Global Recruiting Trends 2016 from LinkedIn found that 47 percent of the 3,894 hiring managers surveyed said that social media is the most effective employer branding tool. Using long-term employees to connect with job seekers on social media is a great way to boost engagement while securing new talent.