Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | January 24, 2010

The Apathetic Employee

Sue Sorensen MSED, SPHR
SSA Training, Inc.

Art managed a team of four service employees.  His team was satisfactory overall, though he had two “stars,” employees that delivered exceptional results and were always willing to step up as goals or requirements dictated.  On the other hand Art had two employees that were not so great.  Natalie, a long-term employee, was reliable in attendance, and generally met her goals. When the going got tough, though, Natalie generally struggled and in good times she delivered only adequate results.  Natalie was good-natured and accepted direction from Art gracefully; however, if Art did not monitor her or instruct her specifically, Natalie would occupy lengthy periods of time at her desk with non-work related tasks, such as talking on the telephone to her friends or family, checking her personal e-mail or shopping online.

Bud was Art’s other lack-luster service person.  Bud gravitated toward the more autonomous portions of his job, spending an inordinate amount of time in the field doing “service calls” or client visits, but in doing so disappeared from the office for prolonged periods.  His off-site stretches did not produce significant results, and left Bud pressed for time in performing other required tasks.  This in turn forced Art to rely, to an even greater degree, on his other two more attentive and productive employees.
Both Natalie and Bud seemed resigned to being in the shadow of the two higher performing employees and accepted without rancor their “meets expectations” ratings and modest raises.   Art felt that if either Natalie or Bud focused their energies while at work and stuck to productive tasks, they would be capable of significantly better results.

About the Apathetic Employee
The distinguishing characteristic of the apathetic employee is the lack of enthusiasm for performance of their duties.  This employee is careful to perform the required minimum, and rarely exhibits any hostility or overt resistance.  On the other hand, they seldom volunteer for tasks or exceed minimum expectations.  A surprising percentage of employees fall into this class. Many managers accept the apathetic employee as a satisfactory “C” player.  Certainly this employee does not pose the destructive threat that a de-motivated employee poses, but actively working with the apathetic employee may lead to significant improvement in performance and engagement.

Apathy stems from insufficient extrinsic (external) or intrinsic (internal) motivation or engagement.  In other words, the employee is either apathetic because the extrinsic motivational factors at play do not move them toward desired performance, or because factors the employee intrinsically values are missing.  Some employees are apathetic throughout their employment, taking the view that “a job is a job,” not knowing or believing that work can be truly engaging.   Others may start out more highly engaged, then as the workplace or their position changes, become apathetic or, over years, drift in and out of apathy.  Sadly even a highly engaged employee can slip into apathy when factors that used to engage, extrinsic or intrinsic, shift.

On the extrinsic front, managers have considerable opportunities to impact the apathetic employee.  Managers might:

  • Tie bonus or merit raises to targeted performance improvement goals
  • Stress improvement rather than competition (reward employee for exceeding their own past performance rather than requiring them to compete with the performance of other – higher performing – employees)
  • Keep performance expectations and goals in smaller increments (for example, monthly versus annual) to keep relevance and renewed achievement opportunities high
  • Offer no cost recognition for improved performance on specific tasks or duties (verbal or written acknowledgments, public credit, etc)
  • Offer informal, low or no cost rewards – certificates, small trophies, ice cream, pizza, donuts, $5 gift cards, etc. tied to specifically desired performance

On the intrinsic level, managers may discover their employees’ intrinsic motivational values. Once the manager has this valuable information, they can heighten an apathetic employee’s engagement and performance by tailoring their motivational efforts to the employee’s values.  While the job itself may not be dramatically altered, the manager can, within limits, make adjustments in assignments and the performance requirements to align more closely with the employee’s intrinsic values, and thereby reap performance and engagement improvements.

For example, an employee with a strong “work-life balance” value may, in part, be apathetic because the rigidity of their job forces them to, say, forfeit taking their child to school in the morning (or some other valued personal non-work activity).  If the manager could offer that employee a slight flex in schedule to accommodate this value, the employee may find coming to work every morning more satisfying.  Or, an employee that is “job-security minded,” might respond well to a job assignment of routine maintenance work. Challenging, higher profile tasks might engage an “achievement-minded” employee.  To help employees with intrinsic value alignment, managers must learn about their employees as individuals and respect the differences between them.

In general, managers need not resign themselves to mediocre performance from a core group of apathetic employees.  In the case above, Art began by adjusting his team’s monthly goals into weekly goals and offered a small reward for any individual improvement week over week.  Natalie’s performance inched up significantly, and, incidentally so did his top performers’.  Art found that reassigning Bud to a “field service” role, with its own defined goals, tapped into Bud’s intrinsic value of autonomy, and allowed Art to get better results from Bud, while Bud was given greater purpose in doing the parts of his job he liked best.
Employees in this category offer great potential for improvement.  Apathy is a passive state, and managers need only create the momentum to move many, if not all apathetic employees toward enhanced engagement, and therefore enhanced performance.



  1. I think motivation really counts a lot as far as apathetic employees are concerned. And most especially, employees adopt this attitude in the public sector most as compared to their counterparts in the private sector.
    This a global ailment and i think it is high time we sat down and tackled the menace.

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