They’re on every field service team – employees who are chronically late and the first ones to head home. And when they’re on the job, they do the least amount of work they can get by with without invoking disciplinary actions. Some would call these technicians slackers and quickly write them off as a good place to start when layoffs are in order. The problem with such labels is they are very often wrong. At one time in their employment, most slackers were just as hard-working and engaged as everyone else, but something happened along the way to cause a change in attitude that has made mediocrity acceptable in their eyes. Before we look at ways to reengage the apathetic, it’s important to understand how they got there.

Three Reasons Technicians Become Slackers

From what I’ve seen, there are three primary ways technicians end up lackadaisical in their jobs. The most common reason is under-appreciation; where a worker feels as though their contributions and hard work aren’t being recognized by their boss. Related, but not coequal, are those who feel as though they aren’t receiving the compensation they deserve for the work they do. The difference between the under-appreciated and the under-compensated is usually time and continued under appreciation. Many employees who no longer engage because of money have evolved from lack of recognition into apathetic, bitter, money-centered people who are very hard to reach. The goal of every manager should be to prevent this type of disconnected employee.

Another prevalent reason employees disengage is purely personal. Divorce, a death in the family, relationship problems, and anything else that brings deep emotional stress can take the focus off of work and cause someone to simply go through the motions from 8 to 5 each day. Even though these external influences are out of a manager’s control, they are worth mentioning, so that a manger can know how to help their employees weather the storm and get back on the road to full engagement.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

The simplest, easiest, and most effective way to get to the root of the problem and begin to turn someone around is one that is so simple that most managers miss it completely. In my 34 years as a technician, I’ve personally experienced all three of the scenarios I’ve laid out, and I can’t think of one manager who took the time to simply ask me why I had tuned out. If a manager had invited me to lunch and said, “Don, you’re not performing like I know you can, is there something wrong?” I would have unloaded the ton of negative thoughts that were affecting my attitude and making my job the chore that I hated to do each day. Given the right atmosphere and a sympathetic ear, most techs will be more than willing to express the reasons they’ve given up working hard. (Please note “the right atmosphere” preface – during a performance appraisal is NOT what I’m suggesting)

Validate Before You Fix

Once an employee bares their soul and unloads their frustration, a manager can then begin to plan how to react to whatever is holding their employee back. One thing that should be avoided is to defend the company or any grievances the disgruntled employee might have against anyone on the team (including the manager asking the questions). No matter how skewed the employee’s view of things might be, if they feel like you are shutting them down by telling them they’re wrong, you will have wasted an otherwise helpful meeting. You are trying to find out what’s wrong and then validate them for who they are – not “fix them” during this interview.

A Proper Venting of Grievances Goes a Long Way

The job is now 90% complete. Most disgruntled employees really only want someone above them to lend a sympathetic ear to their grievances. But there is still work to do. Sometimes a manager will need to interpret what was said at the meeting to get to the true root of the problem. A tech who spends all the time complaining about how many problems they have to deal with that are out of their control is basically saying, “I put up with a lot of bad stuff, but no one appreciates it”, and you might want to consider ways to recognize their contributions to the team. Whereas, someone who spends the whole time talking about money might require a look into adjusting their salary, if possible.

Don’t Ignore Personal Issues

What can be defined as “personal problems” will be out of your control; however, don’t make the mistake of ignoring them. When a manager has inquired about a personal problem without any follow up, any thoughts about not mattering as an employee get magnified. At the least, give them a call in a month or two to ask how things are going. Offering needed time off will also do much to inspire loyalty and dedication.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of problems or solutions for techs who have become less productive, but what I’d like most to get across is the power of a sympathetic ear, and how everyone on your service team needs to feel appreciated and needed. Those who perceive neither will disengage, tune out, and become the next slackers, when they could be highly-engaged, top-performing technicians.