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What to Do When Your Employee Is Totally Checked Out

Rebecca Knight

When a member of your team checks out mentally, it can be frustrating for the whole team. In some cases, the person will only do the bare minimum of work expected. In other cases, he may fail to meet important deadlines or drop the ball on critical projects. What can you do to address the issue? And what’s the best way to ensure this person’s lack of motivation doesn’t affect your other team members?

There are myriad factors that might cause employees to check out, according to Alice Boyes, a former clinical psychologist. “It could be that they feel passed over and they’ve got a gripe. It could be that their job has changed, and they feel out of their depth. It could be a personal issue—maybe they’re going through a divorce.” Regardless of the reason, it’s your job to find a way to support them, says Allison Rimm, author of “Joy of Strategy: A Business Plan for Life.”

Here is how to get started:

Gather evidence

Boyes says that you need to get clarification on how precisely the employee is falling short. Ask yourself, “What are the requirements of the job that this person is not meeting?” It’s also important to consider how you know this information, says Rimm. Have you observed directly that their performance is off? Are you hearing it from others? Reflect, too, on the timeline. Is this a recent problem? Or have you seen a steady slide in this person’s performance? “You need data,” Rimm adds. “Don’t confront anyone about their behavior unless you have good evidence of how it’s affecting others.”

Learn about resources

Before broaching the subject with your employee, Boyes recommends educating yourself about your organization’s resources for dealing with situations like these. “There ought to be some processes and mechanisms in place,” she says. “It shouldn’t be up to an individual manager to deal with this ad hoc.” Learn about available support systems, including employee assistance plans, human resources programs and training courses. Arm yourself with information so that you’re prepared to brainstorm solutions with your employee.

Be compassionate

When it’s time to have a frank and honest conversation with your employee, be kind. “Show up with genuine concern and interest for the other person as a human being,” says Rimm. Ask questions. “You’re not there to blame them or write them up; you’re there to understand what’s going on,” she adds. “Make it clear that you have a legitimate and sincere desire to support them through whatever it is that ails them.”

Offer individualized support

Once you have a better understanding of the underlying issue, you need to work together with the person to come up with a remedy, says Rimm. The solutions will be different depending on what’s behind your employee’s detachment.

If the cause is personal stress, offer flexibility. When an employee is scaling back to deal with a personal issue, you need to be delicate and discreet, says Boyes. If an employee is, say, having marital trouble or needs to tend to a sick parent, offer support and sympathy. Be gentle. Ask the person what would be most helpful—remote work? condensed hours? reduced responsibilities?—and then devise a plan to make it happen for a fixed period. You also need to figure out a way to tell the rest of the team that respects the person’s privacy and confidentiality, says Rimm. Ask your employee, “Would you will be willing to share this information on a limited basis?” Work together to craft a message that addresses the matter appropriately.

If the disengagement is due to a lack of skills, offer training. Start by asking your employees how changes to the work environment have impacted their capacity to do their job. “It might be that their skills, interests and abilities are no longer aligned with their responsibilities,” Rimm says. In this case, you could offer support in the form of continuing education courses or one-on-one coaching.

If your employees are bored, get creative. Find out what their goals are, says Boyes. Then, come up with a solution to energize them. “Maybe they need ongoing skill development or a new project to sink their teeth into,” she says. Think about ways to challenge your employees and expand their professional horizons.

If an employee is burned out, consider whether the requirements of the job are reasonable. “There’s often a lot of murkiness around a job’s official expectations and its actual ones,” says Boyes. Perhaps you need to rethink expectations or come up with a way to more fully recognize the employee’s contributions, for example with a new title.

If the issue is a work-related grievance, be sympathetic. It’s common for employees to temporarily check out because of interpersonal team dynamics, says Boyes. But while you must take complaints seriously, you must also make the impact of their disengagement clear. Rimm suggests saying, “I hear you. That stinks. But let me tell you how this looks. Your team feels like you’ve pulled away and you’re not contributing. It’s having an effect on morale and productivity.”

Be open with your team—to a point

In addition to speaking with the employee in question, you need to address the team. “Acknowledge the elephant in the room,” says Rimm. And yet, don’t single anyone out. Be respectful and professional. Boyes recommends figuring out what’s most annoying—wasted time, missed deadlines or grumpy attitudes—and then addressing those things broadly within your team. Set expectations. Explain requirements. But whatever you do, keep in mind that this is not about one person; it’s about the team.

Be patient—to a point

Lighting a spark under a disengaged employee won’t happen overnight, says Boyes. And unfortunately, it may not happen at all. If the possible remedies you’ve implemented don’t seem to work, it might be a sign that the role isn’t right for that person. Candor is necessary. Explain the priorities of the organization and be straightforward about your concerns. Hopefully, you can come to the conclusion together the person is no longer right for the job. As a gesture of good will, you might offer to help the employee look for a new job.

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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