Andrew Brown, Alison Duncan and Steve Kelly look into the murky world of the
disgruntled employee and find there are a lot more of them about than you might
Employee loyalty is a complex issue. In a recent Manpower International
Employee Loyalty Survey, 72 per cent of 1,454 UK and US employees polled said
they felt loyal toward their organisations. But only 59 per cent felt their
companies deserved that loyalty. More disturbingly, just under a third of the
employees surveyed feel little or no loyalty at all to their companies.
One segment of employees, Disloyal Saboteurs are negative on both counts of
loyalty: they feel the company does not deserve their loyalty, and they do not
feel any loyalty towards it as a result. Who are these corporate saboteurs, who
make up more than 20 per cent of the employees interviewed? And what impact do
their opinions and actions have?
Analysis of the international loyalty data suggests there are massive
attitude differences between saboteurs and other employees, regarding issues of
business strategy and the role of values within organisations.
Saboteurs, at only 24 per cent, are much less likely to believe that loyalty
is valued and rewarded within their organisations, which contrasts with 76 per
cent among the Mutual Loyalists. The gap here suggests that the mix of both
softer recognition of employee loyalty as well as harder reward for it
underpins actual loyalty levels. If employees are demonstrating loyalty – for
example, through great performance over extended periods, going the extra mile
for customers, delivering while the business is under pressure, and so on –
they need to be shown that this is valued. Not rocket science, but it can have
a dramatic impact on subsequent loyalty patterns.
Equally, saboteurs are much less likely to be aware of a company’s values,
to know how they can be applied or to feel they are lived by both colleagues
and managers. The direction of causality is difficult to confirm here, but is
likely to consist of one of the following mechanisms:
– If employees are feeling low levels of loyalty generally, then they may
switch off from any values programmes which are introduced. Common reactions
among corporate saboteurs to new values initiatives include: ‘What has this got
to do with me?’; ‘Why should I bother with such values?’; and, in a more
destructive sense, ‘If you think I’m going to be team-driven, innovative or
performance-orientated just to make you more money, think again’. Saboteurs
typically talk down change. They are as far removed from being ‘change agents’
as it is possible to get.
– If certain groups of employees are excluded from values programmes, this
may be partly driving their lower levels of loyalty. For example:
– Many companies launch their values programmes in year one and then do
substantial amounts of communications with staff in the months following to try
to maintain the initial rush of values-driven behaviour. However, many also
neglect to put processes into place to ‘sustain’ values programmes over time
and as a result, employees who miss the initial burst of activity may be less
motivated by the company values and feel less loyal as a result.
– Other companies neglect to ‘on-board’ contract employees, so they are
never made aware of the values and behaviours expected of them. Treating
contractors as part of the team and including them in broader on-boarding
activities rather than simple inductions, could lead to more consistency in
values-driven behaviours across the organisation.
Finally, saboteurs are much less likely to be aware of, understand or feel
committed to the success of the corporate business strategy. If one-fifth of
employees (the proportion in the study identified as saboteurs) have such low
levels of engagement with the overall strategic direction of the business, it
can have major implications for whether strategic delivery is achievable.
Again, causality may be running in two directions, with generally less loyal
employees taking less interest in the overall business strategy. Equally,
however, if employees are not encouraged to become engaged with the overall
aims and objectives of the business, they may feel less loyal towards it.
The study asked employees what they felt were the main drivers of loyalty
within their organisations. And contrasting the Mutual Loyalist and saboteur
segments reveals major differences. To begin, having values visibly lived
within the organisation is much less of a key loyalty driver for saboteurs than
for Mutual Loyalists. But two other differences stand out.
Strong teamwork is identified as the main driver of loyalty among the
saboteur grouping. But this is not to say they believe teamwork is strong,
rather that where stronger teamwork does exist, it has a big impact on
variations in loyalty levels. In reality, work in companies with large
groupings of saboteurs has found that teamwork is particularly weak. In other
words, such companies are performing badly on one of their key loyalty drivers.
Qualitative research among these workers tends to find them feeling isolated or
segregated from stronger team-working environments. So if you want to convert
saboteurs, then, strengthening the team-working element of their jobs is a potential
solution. The risk, however, is that if those workers are so disengaged
already, their behaviours will become disruptive to a team dynamic.
A strong employer brand is much less of a key loyalty driver for saboteurs,
suggesting that the group is more interested in ‘just a job’ than in the
company or employer for whom they are going to work. One consequence, found in
many companies with high turnover, is that saboteurs are rationally joining a
business with an intention from the outset not to have particularly strong
allegiances to them. They care little about what the company has to offer aside
from the basic role and pay for that role. ‘Career brand’ is simply not an
issue for them. This suggests companies may want to direct their employer
branding strategies in a more targeted way: with this negative grouping it is
simply not a salient issue.
So how should companies deal with saboteurs? Our research suggests three key
1 Identify where saboteur groupings lie within your organisation
The use of more sophisticated employee research diagnostics (going beyond
simple staff satisfaction surveys) will act as a starting point. In addition,
break down the analysis used in this identification process: look within
divisions and business units; look within particular strata inside the
organisation (middle management often have a greater proportion of ‘sabs’ than
might be expected); look at particular job types (are there more ‘sabs’ in your
call centre than in your logistics division?). This helps to refine your
understanding of the problem.
2 Work out what drives the saboteur group
What might improve their feelings of loyalty. What might convert them to
being a less destructive force inside the organisation? Is it a pay issue alone
or does the group feel excluded from teamwork and suffer a lack of recognition?
Using analytical techniques on your employee opinion data (such as key driver
analysis) can help to achieve this. Done properly, this can also help a
business to estimate what proportion of its ‘sab’ staff are potential converts
and which are already so disengaged that efforts to convert them into loyalists
would be wasted.
3 Determine a segmented future strategy to deal with your saboteurs
From a recruitment standpoint, think about how to screen out potential
employees from scratch. For instance, if you need customer-focused front-line
staff, don’t even think about hiring staff who dislike working with people.
Investment in the use of selection and assessment tools may save you more money
in the long-run.
From a performance viewpoint, include issues that are likely to weed out
destructive behaviours. Examples might include product and service advocacy and
how employees speak about the company as an employer.
Finally, from a retention standpoint, companies with high levels of
saboteurs need to make a radical strategic decision. Do you put up with
saboteur behaviour or do you manage it (or indeed its protagonists) out of the
business? Consider the amount of potential revenue lost if a fifth of employees
in typical companies act as saboteurs. Lost productivity. Less agility. Poorer
customer focus. Lower attraction of talent. Add these up and it would only be a
non-rational employer that would ignore its saboteurs.
Loyalty segments and their definitions:
– Mutual Loyalists: These
employees feel loyal towards their company and feel that the company deserves
that loyalty. There is likely to be a feeling of mutuality between the company
and the employee. Staff are likely to see their psychological contract as a
two-way street where their own efforts and performance are rewarded with
investment from the company. To some degree this is the ideal scenario: true,
mutual loyalty. From our data, just over half all US/UK employees are Mutual
– Blind Loyalists: A significant proportion of our
sample, almost one in five, express loyalty towards their company despite not
feeling the company deserves it. To some extent, this segment is expressing
blind or misplaced loyalty towards their organisations. This might be seen by
businesses as an inferior type of loyalty as employees in this segment could,
effectively, be ‘hostages’, staying for the long term but feeling disgruntled
– Disloyal Mercenaries: Only a small segment of the sample – just over one in 20 – are
mercenaries. Despite feeling their company actually deserves their loyalty,
they have no loyalty towards it. They are not playing their part in a mutual,
two-way, loyalty-based relationship. Retention rates in this group are likely
to be lower than average, even though performance may be above average.
– Disloyal Saboteurs: This group accounts for more than
one in five employees interviewed, and are negative on both counts of
loyalty. They feel the company does not
deserve their loyalty, and do not feel any loyalty towards it as a result. This
is likely to be the least positive group within an organisation with either
higher turnover rates or very low levels of morale and active undermining of
positive developments inside the company.
Case Study: What if your saboteurs
won’t go away?
Bad enough to discover you’ve got a
large number of corporate saboteurs.
What if they intend staying with you for the long-term? This was the unenviable situation one of our
service-sector clients found themselves in when the analysis from their
employee opinion survey found that one in three of their saboteurs were
planning to stay at the company for the long-term.
Companies ignore this group at their peril, especially if the
saboteurs deal with customers. Potential saboteur behaviours are likely to
include: spreading discontent among other employees and customers, sabotaging
new company initiatives and generally draining enthusiasm created elsewhere in
One way to address the issue of employees displaying these
behaviours is through the company’s performance management system. But while a
good system is a key component in any organisation, our research suggests that
it is unlikely, by itself, to result in the desired improvements with
saboteurs. There is a risk that this group of already disillusioned employees
will become further alienated from the company.
The key here is to identify what drives this group – what makes
them loyal to the company and what does the company need to change to make them
feel that loyalty is deserved? Using the data from their employee opinion
survey to identify the three main drivers of loyalty and deserved loyalty within
this particular group helped our client organisation develop action plans to
address these priorities.
In this case, the three main loyalty drivers were:
– Communications (transparency, openness, trust)
– Cultural values (such as teamwork and recognition)
– Learning and development opportunities
By identifying these critical issues, it allowed the company to
focus on what will make a difference, rather than working through a long list
of initiatives, many of which have no real effect.
The company’s key action plans include:
communications channels, content and culture through improved team briefing;
senior managerial exposure through back-to-the-floor workshops; and expanded
internet use across the whole organisation
– Value sustainment programmes
to help revive the initial burst of activity the company had on its initial
values programme several years ago and a move toward ‘on-boarding’ and away
from induction so that issues such as how to live the values can be addressed
with new employees. The company also gave local managers the ability to
influence individual and team bonuses according to how values are lived in
day-to-day behaviours with customers and colleagues
– Tailoring learning and development opportunities at team and
individual levels to help target specific needs and to better serve local
Final results are not yet available, but this targeted approach
should, in the long run, result in improved loyalty and retention where
feasible, while managing out of the business those saboteurs who simply cannot
Andrew Brown is global practice leader (research and diagnostics), for The
Empower Group and is a former visiting fellow at Harvard University. Alison
Duncan is senior analyst and Steve Kelly is research director in the European
research and development team at The Empower Group.
– Manpower International Employee Loyalty Survey
The Empower Group Loyalty Rules (Boston: Harvard Business School
Press, 2001) – Reichheld, FF