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Handling disengaged employees who are ‘sheltering in job’


When a storm’s bearing down on an area and it’s unsafe or unfeasible to evacuate, we’ve all heard meteorologists and government officials advise residents to shelter in place until the danger passes.

Sheltering in job is a similar idea – employees hunker down and stay put in a job, even if they’re unhappy and don’t want to, because of unfavorable conditions around them and fears of adverse impacts if they make a wrong move.

This is an increasingly common type of employee retention problem. Sure, employees who are sheltering in job are still with your company, but they’re disengaged, don’t really want to be there and have one foot out the door, ready to flee when the timing is right or a better opportunity comes along. At some point in the not-too-distant future, they will likely become former employees.

Given recent data, it’s likely that someone on your team is sheltering in job.

A Workforce Confidence survey of more than 5,500 LinkedIn members revealed that 74% of respondents remain in their current job for a reason that amounts to sheltering in job, such as:

  • Maintaining a steady paycheck and keeping household finances stable (59%)
  • Being able to access good company benefits and perks (30%)
  • Waiting for a more favorable job market (15%)
  • Lacking energy or time to look for a new job (14%)

Furthermore, the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020 found that a majority of Millennial and Generation Z employees – the generations most prone to changing jobs every few years – would now rather stay put with their employers for at least five years. This survey had more than 27,500 participants.

Why employees shelter in job

In addition to the rationale cited in the LinkedIn survey for staying put, sheltering in job happens for a number of reasons, including:

  • Fear of the unknown at a new company
  • Comfort with the status quo and predictability, despite general dissatisfaction
  • Economic volatility
  • High unemployment rate
  • Desire for security
  • Plans and preparation to eventually freelance or start their own business
  • Uncertainty or instability in their personal lives that makes a job change unattractive (today, it’s common for employees to act as caregivers for other family members or have children in homeschool or virtual schooling)

The warning signs

One of the most challenging aspects of the sheltering-in-job phenomenon is that you don’t know exactly who these employees are and have no real means of finding out for certain. Very few people would dare to confess to their boss that they’re just biding their time in their current role, waiting for better things.

But there are certain indicators that can help to give you a hunch – and they will typically show up in the form of complacency, disengagement or sub-par performance. Examples:

  • Falling behind on projects or missing deadlines
  • Changing quality of work for the worse
  • Reducing interest in their work or the company
  • Lacking accountability or ownership of their work
  • Withdrawing from colleagues and management
  • Collaborating less frequently
  • Complaining consistently
  • Not expressing the initiative or desire for new work
  • Staying quiet during meetings and video calls
  • Seeming distracted

As more employees work remotely, employers are at a greater disadvantage in deciphering their cues. When a person isn’t directly in front of you, much less in the same building, it’s harder to assess their behavior. Employers who lead remote team members need to hone certain leadership skills from a distance:

  • Getting to know everyone on an individual basis
  • Regularly checking in
  • Gauging levels of stress, engagement and motivation
  • Understanding when shifts in normal behavior and mindset have taken place

Impacts on a company

Although some employees who shelter in job do take advantage of their remaining time at a company to develop their skills and strengthen relationships, others carry a more negative vibe that can become contagious and toxic to your workplace. Certainly, an employee’s poor attitude, lack of interest and unhappiness can harm team dynamics and the culture as a whole.

Customers can detect employees’ attitudes as well. An employee who seems complacent and doesn’t make much of an effort, at best, can tarnish your company’s reputation and drive customers away.

Your company could experience losses of productivity and reduced quality of work output.

If you missed the warning signs and are caught by surprise when an employee suddenly leaves, your company will now have to deal with the high costs of employee turnover and the knowledge gaps that that employee left. If many of your employees are sheltering in job, you’ll have to do this frequently.

How to identify and reduce sheltering in job

Of course, employees will always leave your company – many times, for reasons you can’t control. However, there are steps you can take to mitigate the sheltering-in-job mindset in employees and overall retention problems:

1. Engagement surveys

Ask employees to complete a survey – typically on annual basis – that asks questions about their level of engagement and satisfaction, as well as their perceptions of the workplace environment, leadership and communication. You can also use them to gauge the feasibility or popularity of a major change or new idea.

The survey can be completed online or via a paper form, and it should be anonymous to get the most honest, accurate answers. These surveys can be critical in understanding what your employees are thinking, identifying potential problems and discovering in which areas your workplace can improve.

2. Pulse surveys

These are similar to engagement surveys, except they’re shorter, focused on a single specific issue and conducted more frequently throughout the year. Their purpose is to get a quick “pulse” on employee opinion.

3. Regular, one-on-one check-ins with employees

If you’re trying to discover what an employee’s thinking, sometimes you need to ask them directly. Meet privately with each employee periodically to find out how they’re doing and address potential problems proactively.

Topics of conversation may include:

  • Workload
  • Stress level
  • Whether they feel challenged enough
  • Goal setting
  • Career development
  • Any other struggles they’re facing in the workplace
  • Any personal issues they want you to be aware of

4. Consistent evaluation of workplace culture

In addition to the insight gleaned from employee surveys, regularly reflect on what your workplace culture is like – and what you’re doing to enhance its positivity.

Ask yourself:

  • What does your company do to promote work-life balance?
  • How much autonomy does your company give employees?
  • How transparent is leadership?
  • How well do team members collaborate?
  • On average, what are relationships like between peers? What about the relationships between managers and subordinates? (The managerial relationship especially impacts employee retention. People do stick with jobs and perform well if they have good relationships with their managers. Remember this old saying: People don’t leave jobs. They leave managers.)
  • Do you frequently promote from within – and give employees the opportunity to gain the experience necessary for consideration?
  • How diverse and inclusive is your organization?
    • Do you encourage diversity in thought and express openness to new ideas?
    • Does everyone feel welcome?
    • Does everyone feel valued and free to speak up and share their opinions?
  • How equitable is your organization?
    • Do all policies and rules apply to everyone, regardless of status and seniority?
  • How do you show employees that you care about them and value them?
    • Do you encourage a learning culture by providing continuing education and training opportunities?
    • Do you find ways to accommodate them, on a case-by-case basis, when personal or family obligations conflict with work?

5. Marketplace and competitor analysis

Compare how your company aligns with others in terms of salary and benefits, including:

If you’re in step with what the marketplace and fellow industry players offer, your risk of employees leaving for greener pastures is reduced.

Summing it all up

Sheltering in job is an increasingly common employee retention problem in which people want to leave a workplace and find a new job – but won’t, at least in the short term, for a variety of personal and professional reasons, as well as external conditions related to the economy and marketplace.

They’re hanging out, waiting to make a move, while enjoying the security and stability of their current job. The problem for your company is that disengaged employees can spread negativity, and you’ll eventually have to deal with recruiting and hiring replacements.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to assess employees’ mindset and re-engage them to reduce your risks:

  • Survey employees
  • Talk with employees one-on-one
  • Evaluate your workplace culture and forms of employee support, and consider how to improve
  • Determine how competitive your company is in terms of salary, benefits and perks

To learn more about how to keep valued employees for the long term, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to employee retention.