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Alison A. Quirk Headshot

Clocked in, But Checked Out: How to Quash Quitting in the Seats

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For years now, we've been hearing from prestigious people of every persuasion that U.S. workers lack the skills for in-demand jobs. Even though I personally haven't come across a skills gap where I'm at currently, this issue is causing significant concern for some organizations. Call me a pragmatist, but what I find more troubling is the phenomenon I have read about frequently employees who are "quitting in their seats" -- the folks who complain miserably about how they're not "putting in" time at the office, they're "doing time" at the office. In reality, they've quit but they just have not left yet. And a recent poll from Gallup, Inc., confirms that this trend remains prevalent.

According to Gallup's "The State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders," of the approximately 100 million people in the U.S. with full-time jobs, only 30 percent of those people actually feel eager and excited to go to work (well... I'm sure the study had some way of filtering responses given on a Monday after a holiday weekend or a stunning Boston Bruins defeat). So, what about the rest of the workforce? A full 18 percent are actively disengaged -- meaning they're miserable, they don't care who knows it and they'll do little more than collect a pay check until they can hatch their escape plan. And, as for the remaining 52 percent of workers? Well, Gallup's description of them was worth a chuckle -- "they're just kind of present...." I like to think that they are "up for grabs."

And while it might be tempting to share the Gallup study with a manager or with your spouse or partner as proof that, "yes, you really do everything at work," this study does have a troubling underside -- the costs to careers, companies and families. In fact, Gallup put a price tag of $450 to $500 billion annually on the cost of employee disengagement and poor management.

While it might be tempting for many of us to "write off" the roughly 20 percent of people who are actively disengaged, I don't think any of us have the kind of bosses or managers who'd like to lose those kinds of margins. And truthfully, the actively disengaged were probably once like a lot of us. They came into their jobs with dreams. They wanted to build their careers, they saw themselves going places... and then, for a lot of them, their work lost its meaning or it got harder and harder to find office allies. The honeymoon phase may have not ended abruptly, but in time, these newcomers faded into the silent majority of "just kind of present" and eventually they became quitters in their seats. But it doesn't have to be this way. In my experience, I've found that the process can be reversed.

Remember, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Organizations that are hoping to improve employee engagement also have to be ready to see the good, the bad and the ugly. You'll need tools and surveys to tell you where you really are -- otherwise, you'll never get to where you want to be. It can be difficult to ask employees to share their honest views but its an important place to start, Ask your employees the tough questions like, "Are planning on leaving in the next six months?" Are you really committed to your team, your manager and the company and really listen to their answers, not the ones you expect or want to hear.

Manage success, not just defeats. Criticism is easy, it's fast and it's practically effortless. And that's why it does little more than hurt. Great managers earn the engagement of their employees, when they get right "in the game" with them and champion what works and what makes a difference. And trust me, when you celebrate success, your whole team sees it.

Get loud and stand out. While we may have disliked the teacher's pet in school, it's the folks who start by being their own advocates who get the best rest results for themselves. If your workplace isn't working for you, find the manager or mentor who can help you reconnect with what's meaningful about your job, your skills and your abilities. Few people will champion your destiny if you're unwilling to do so first.

Make it matter. Whether you're the boss or the employee, you've got to find a way to connect with the work that matters and is meaningful to you. Think about it -- you spend a third of your life sleeping, a third of your life working and a third of it living. Shouldn't what you do be an extension of the passions in your life? Look for ways that your company may support your charities, let you volunteer for things that matter to you or provide you with flex time. If you're a manager, it's your job to keep explaining why what each employee does matters -- to the success of the firm and the clients

For me, quitting is what you do with cigarettes and bad habits; it's not something you do in your seat. Life's too short to be in a job you don't care about, so get out there and find the one that gives you meaning in what you do.