Engaging Long Term Employees: Are Your Employees Feeling a 10-Year Itch? Here’s How to Scratch It

Hard to motivate staff who worked for more than ten years.

— Nurse

Moving your team from low to high gear can be mission impossible. It may not even be safe to try: their cynicism could be more contagious than your enthusiasm. But what if you knew the risk factors for disengagement? Could you monitor certain groups of employees and intervene before they turned into hardened slackers?

In an ideal world, managers would have strong personal relationships with all their subordinates. Like an experienced diagnostician, the manager would pick up early warning signs of burnout and disengagement and get the employee the help he or she needs.

That’s the ideal Platonic company we all strive to become. Meanwhile, here on Earth, managers are lucky to know if they are losing motivation, let alone their employees. When this is the case, checking in with those at the highest risk could be a lifesaver for your team.

Here’s one idea. According to a Gallup study (see Engage Your Long-Time Employees to Improve Performance by James Harter, Harvard Business Review, March 16, 2015), employees who have worked for ten or more years in the same position are less likely to stay engaged and more likely to be actively disengaged than employees with shorter tenures.

After ten years, the novelty wears off, yet people stay entrenched in their routines, even the ones they don’t care for. No earth-shattering news there, right? That’s until you realize what’s wrong with this picture. These long-term employees are the company!

Let’s take my company, Axero, for example. We’re barely ten years old. The people who have been with us the longest are the backbone of the business. What would happen if I, my partner Vivek, our lead programmer Raghav, and our jack-of-all-trades Bryce were no longer feeling it? We’d all be in big trouble! Sluggish sales. Missed deadlines. Pissed-off customers. In fact, we’d be out of business before we could calculate our employee net promoter score.

In our company, the oldest employees are the ones motivating and checking in on everyone else. And that’s the way it should be. In another Gallup study, a talented and engaged company veteran (ten-plus years), on average, outperformed a talented and engaged recent hire (under two years) by 350%!

Talent compounds. And the combined experience of your employees is all your company has to offer. Really. Keeping your best people is half the battle. In the same Gallup study, actively disengaged (read angry and looking to get the hell out) long-term employees still outperformed engaged recent hires by 175%!

Keeping your best people engaged is the whole battle. Although experienced employees in the Gallup study were the highest contributors, regardless of the engagement level, there were variances within that group. Engaged long-term employees outperformed the disengaged ones by 64%.

Moving on to the “how” question, how do you keep long-term employees around and doing their best work? Here are some easy answers.

Don’t RIF them

A RIF, Reduction in Force, often follows mergers and acquisitions and other business calamities. The idea is to eliminate redundancies and improve margins. However, as you’re cutting the fat from the newly acquired company, make sure you don’t cut into bone, muscle, and brain. Take the time to understand the business and the customers you have acquired and make sure that no vital expertise gets lost in transition.

Pay them fairly

Sometimes the only way to get a decent raise is to switch jobs. Don’t wait until your best people get an offer somewhere else. Even if you can match the offer, it might be too late by then. Today’s employees use all sorts of tools to figure out what the market would pay for their skills. Make sure your company does the same.

Recognize long service

If you want your people to stick around, why not make it special? LinkedIn remembers job anniversaries, so why can’t you, the employer? If you’re a big company, check personnel data to see when your employees are most likely to leave. Is it the three-year mark? Five? Ten? Maybe that’s the time to show a little extra appreciation!

Axero’s intranet software has a “birthday and work anniversary” widget that you can drag-and-drop onto one of your pages. It automatically calculates and displays the dates for everyone to see. So, even if you forget, everyone else won’t.

Meet them halfway—at least

Be sensitive to the changing needs of your long-term employees. Don’t let them stagnate in jobs that no longer interest them. Some prestigious firms have up-or-out policies. They believe an outstanding employee will always want to grow within the company—and that’s the only kind they wish to have.

If you can’t keep them, make them your customers

Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company is world-famous for being a “CEO launch pad.” The company website boasts, “At the last count, about 450 former McKinsey consultants were running billion-dollar-plus organizations around the world.”

McKinsey is the ultimate up-or-out employer. It turns over twenty-five percent of employees every two years. It is understood that even the best employees will eventually outgrow their consulting roles. Many get hired as top managers or start their own companies. Former employees are also likely to refer business to McKinsey. If you are going to have turnover, this is the best kind.

McKinsey has been more successful at “placing” its alums than other top consulting firms. Perhaps its size and industry connections play a role. Most importantly, McKinsey relentlessly trains its people for critical CEO skills—something for all of us to think about.

In the next article, we’ll talk about another at-risk group of employees, sometimes called the “honeymooners.”


If you like to keep your people, you might like my book, because it’s about companies that do it best.

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Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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