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The Invisible Employee

There’s a frightening specter threatening businesses today: the invisible employee.

The invisible employee feels overlooked, ignored and unappreciated. He fights back the only way he knows—by staying hidden in the corporate shadows, doing just enough to get by, grumbling about this and that and, most scarily, passing these techniques along to new workers.

The basic invisible employee rationale goes something like this: why bother shining when no one notices your achievements? Why exert yourself when you could very well be in the next batch of layoffs? Just keep your head down—and never do more than is asked of you.

You’ve probably come across these folks. Sadly, a few may even work for you. Underperforming, uncaring employees undermine our efforts to build great companies. But you can transform your team and company from ordinary to extraordinary by taking three simple steps:

  • Set a guiding vision
  • Identify employee achievements that move your organization toward its goals
  • Celebrate those achievements

The end result is an organization of productive employees who feel valued and appreciated. In other words, they feel visible. In work cultures that follow these guidelines, employees actually enjoy coming to work everyday. As John Cutter, CEO of Friendly Ice Cream Corporation, says, “Restaurants do not sell merchandise that people can take home; we only sell memories. Engaging our entire staff by using these principles helps Friendly’s provide great memories for our guests.”

Sometimes the manager is the problem

At first glance, most managers we’ve met look great. They dress professionally, have flawless posture, speak intelligently and know their industries and their requisite jargon. But the real test of their competence comes when we interview the employees working for them. For the most part, the people who work for great bosses are confident and outgoing. They aren’t afraid of change or competition and are ready to take on new challenges. These employees revel in doing their best work and coming up with innovative ways to further the goals of the organization.

Then there are the employees who work for bad bosses. They spend their days quietly undermining the efforts of their teams, managers and companies. Some are actively cynical. Why? Because they live hidden in the shadows. They are … invisible. Some of them are quiet and reserved; others are obsessed with worry about the future of their jobs. In the worst cases, some are openly contemptuous, constantly complaining about their needy customers, their co-workers and, especially, their bosses.

Successful organizations are filled with visible, productive employees—people who are excited about their work and eager to create great memories for clients. In today’s competitive environment, all of us are looking for the next big product or high-tech solution. But our research has shown that our greatest managers are returning to the basics. They realize that ongoing employee recognition leads to a more engaged workforce and a more successful business.

“Recognition is America’s most underused motivational tool,” says Richard Kovacevich, chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo. Kovacevich is one executive who has discovered that in a recognition culture, it’s impossible for employees to remain invisible.

If praise and recognition are to be effective, they must be:

  • Specific
  • Sincere
  • Public
  • Appropriate
  • Frequent/Ongoing

In a 2005 survey of 26,000 employees at all levels in 31 organizations, The Jackson Organization, a research firm, found direct correlations between organizations that are effective at recognizing employee excellence and those with higher operating margins, return on equity and return on assets. In fact, the researchers found those financial measures are up to six times higher when recognition is strategic, frequent and effective. That’s a lot of cold data, but behind it is more engaged, satisfied and productive employees.

Are Your Employees Invisible?

Have them take the following short quiz to find out (excerpted from our new book The Invisible Employee [John Wiley & Sons]).

How many of the following statements do you relate to? You’re an Invisible Employee if…

  • You have only the foggiest idea what the formal goals/values of your team or corporation are--and you don’t really care to know.
  • It’s been several years since management implemented one of your ideas.
  • Your boss doesn’t listen to you, in fact, rarely even looks up from checking e-mail when you are in her office.
  • You haven’t been recognized in the last week with specific praise from your direct supervisor.
  • It’s been at least a year since you’ve received a tangible, public award for a great accomplishment.
  • When you receive recognition, it often comes weeks or months after the fact.
  • You can’t remember the last time your manager celebrated an important team victory.
  • Everyone in your department receives the same rewards, without regard for individual contributions.
  • You wouldn’t even dream of recommending your company to a friend.
  • You’re already out the door at 5:01 p.m. every day.


If you agreed with:

1 or 2 answers:     You may be an Invisible Employee.
3 to 8 answers:     You are an Invisible Employee.
9 or 10 answers:   You are about to blink out.

© 2006 Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton