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Are You A "Workplace Prisoner"?

Don MacPherson

Partner at Aon

You might be surprised to learn that one in twelve global workers are "Disengaged" yet are still planning to stay with their current employer. That's correct. About 8 percent of the people you come in contact with at work or in a working situation are miserable in what they are doing, are doing the minimum to get by and have no plan to change their situation. We call these employees "Workplace Prisoners."

Our research has uncovered a number of reasons why employees become "Prisoners." One reason is inertia. An employee who has been with their employer for many years is far more likely to stay despite being "Disengaged." Someone might be an expert at their job, but the thought of going somewhere else that is more inspiring to them is terrifying. That's why more than 17 percent of people working at the same place for 26 plus years are "Prisoners."

Another reason why employees stay through their disengagement is pay. We found that "Prisoners" are significantly more likely to be overpaid compared to market pay analysis. This is despite the fact that "Prisoners" are far less likely to respond favorably to perceptions of their pay. They are more likely to be paid above market and at the same time less satisfied with their pay. The fact is, however, that often they are paid more than they are worth on the open market so they choose to stay.

Are You a "Prisoner?"

First, ask yourself two questions about your organization.

1) In general, do you say good things about your organization when talking with friends and family?

2) Does your organization inspire you to do your best at work?

Now ask yourself one more important question.

3) Do you intend to stay with your employer a long time?

If you answered "yes" to question three, that you intend to stay with your employer a long time and responded an emphatic "no" to question one, question two, or both, you are wearing the shackles of a "Workplace Prisoner."

Getting Yourself Released

No one dreams about being trapped in a job they don't like, especially year after year. Think about how devastating that would be to you as a husband or wife, father or mother, friend, and community member. It's hard to imagine someone who loathes their job can leave work and be their best outside of work. Eventually you will get beaten down by this prison sentence.

If this is you, you need to ask yourself some very important questions:

Can you be engaged at your current employer?

If "no," then you need ask yourself if your health and happiness are worth it. Keep in mind that you are patterning behavior that others see. If you have children, they may believe that work is a miserable experience that must be tolerated and that could taint their perception of work for life.

If you believe it's possible to be engaged where you work now, ask another question. What would it take to be engaged by your current employer? Break your responses into two categories – what you can do make it happen and what your organization or leadership can do to make it happen. Engagement is bidirectional—not something that is done to you—so be sure not to leave the "what you can do" part blank.

This is the really hard part. Gather all the courage you can and have a conversation with your manager or leadership about your list. Let them know there is more to you than what they have seen lately. Tell them what you'd like to see from them and what you are committed to doing in order to re-engage.

Sounds risky, right? It is. But what do you have to lose? If you go through this process, you probably decided that being a passive "Prisoner" is not for you anymore. The worst that can happen is that you speed up the process to an exit that would have been inevitable.

You owe it to your friends and family, your community and most of all to yourself.

To learn more about "Workplace Prisoners," go to to download the whitepaper "Actively Disengaged & Staying: Dealing with Prisoners in the Workplace" written by Christopher Adair and Don MacPherson.

Header Photo: Twenty20

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