The Employer-Employee Bond is Breaking: Warning Signs and Symptoms

The Employer-Employee Bond is Breaking: Warning Signs and Symptoms

Trust and loyalty between organizations and their people are both unraveling. Numerous surveys point to deeply concerning trends - the percentage of disengaged workers reached an all-time high of 68% in 2022 (Gallup). Voluntary turnover has been climbing year over year, with 1 in 3 employees planning to change jobs in 2023. A recent survey by OnePoll (on behalf of Bonusly) revealed 46% of U.S. workers left a job because they felt unappreciated. And, in a recent Forbes poll, 65% of respondents said they would work harder if they felt like their contributions were noticed by management (Forbes).

This mounting “Broken Bond” dilemma signals a foundational crisis in the employer-employee relationship, requiring immediate attention and specific action from leaders. But first, we need to diagnose the core issues that are eroding essential pillars of trust, purpose, flexibility, and growth that top talent expects. 

Plummeting engagement & soaring turnover 

How much do employees trust their employers? HBR chart

Let’s start with the most basic data points. Gallup’s most recent State of the Global Workplace report spotlights a worldwide engagement crisis - with only 20% of employees feeling invested and enthusiastic about their jobs. Furthermore, their research shows highly disengaged employees are twice as likely to switch jobs in a given year. There’s nothing new here … you’ve likely read dozens of articles focused on this data.

Peeling back the layers further reveals additional surveys that support this lack of engagement. A recent HBR study found junior staff to have far less trust than their senior colleagues, suggesting a leadership and communications gap, and even more alarming is the widening gap in trust between women and men as they advance into more senior roles.

As that emotional connection unravels further, more employees head for the exits. There is a growing movement towards solopreneurship, evidenced by the growing community of fractional workers (or creators) on LinkedIn, and 85% of workers say they are considering switching jobs this year (Inc).

EIGHTY FIVE PERCENT of employees plan to quit their job 🤯

Why the mass exodus? Employees cite lack of growth, flexibility, recognition, trust and purpose as core reasons for considering leaving current roles behind. 

Clearly, we’ve reached an inflection point where the psychological contract between employers and employees has reached a tipping point. 

Raised up hands to display the issues in employee-employer relations.

  • Raise your hand if there’s been a reduction in force at your company recently …
  • Raise your hand if you’ve felt betrayed or lied to by your employer …
  • Raise your hand if you view work differently than you did 10 years ago …
  • Raise your hand if your manager has lied or hidden something from you …
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been passed over for a raise you were verbally promised …
  • Raise your hand if you have complete trust in your employer.


It’s time we put more effort into understanding the other side (empathy) and start working together to build a foundation of trust, understanding, mutual respect and compassion. Employers and employees need each other. So, let’s dig in and figure it out.

An US vs THEM culture 

It's no secret that fostering trust and a sense of shared goals between employees and leadership has become more challenging. Conversations with friends and colleagues make it clear - there's a growing divide developing in a lot of corporate cultures.

On the one hand, employees increasingly view decision-makers and the broader organization as fundamentally motivated by self-interest. Whether rational or not, there's growing cynicism that fancy values statements claiming "we're all in this together" ring hollow when bonuses for the C-suite keep rising while employee wages stagnate, reductions in force continue, and jobs get outsourced.

This perception of misaligned incentives and double standards feeds into skepticism - do our leaders genuinely care about our development and well-being? Or are we just easily replaceable cogs used to maximize profits and shareholder returns?

From the top-down view, there is a sense of exasperation settling in some executive teams as well. Painting employees with a broad brush, leadership may unfairly perceive people as unwilling to adapt, entitled and short-term oriented. They ask - with all the perks, benefits and opportunities we provide - why isn't that enough to earn loyalty? Why aren't people as invested in the company's success?

Of course both sides risk overgeneralizing. But the research signals something is fracturing - employees crave more empathy, appreciation, flexibility, and inclusion in decisions impacting them rather than directives handed down as edicts. While leaders need to tune in to rising frustrations among their people rather than dismissing concerns prematurely.

Ultimately, this won't be solved overnight. However, encouraging both parties to focus first on understanding vs. blaming and second on rebuilding bridges may be the key to healing the growing divide. A little more empathy and a little less suspicion could really go a long way here. Just listening (to understand) and making the first moves to open a dialog would be progress.


Inconsistencies in purpose & values

Disengagement also links strongly to deficits in purpose and values-alignment. Only 21% of employees feel connected to the shared values of their organization (Gallup). This purpose-values gap relates to growing sentiments that employers prioritize shareholders over all other stakeholders without regard to employee welfare or societal impact. 

From leadership's perspective, I get it - so much time and money gets invested in defining lofty missions centered on changing the world and embracing buzzwords like passion, integrity, inclusion and innovation. Those principles aim to provide guardrails for decision-making and culture.

But talk is cheap - And employees want proof that those values actually guide behavior and policies. Because right now, people feel publicly praised as a company's greatest asset while simultaneously getting denied benefits, professional development opportunities or work-life balance because it's not convenient or cost-effective.

Employee-employer relations t the office to display that people feel publicly praised as a company's greatest asset while simultaneously getting denied benefits, professional development opportunities or work-life balance because it's not convenient or cost-effective.

The bottom line - when everyday workplace realities routinely divert away from the posted values and purpose, cynicism grows and employees start to see leadership as disingenuous. Or worse, that they simply do not care.

And without clear alignment between principles and practice, people disengage. They lose trust in the stated purpose and vision. The psychological contracts binding them to company priorities frays without that shared sense of meaning and cultural fit.

Leaders have to wake up to this value-reality gap dividing employers and employees. Start by listening rather than explaining. Ask questions on where intended culture and actual culture diverge. Get comfortable with criticism. Then back up (and stand by) fancy purpose statements!

Don't just go through the motions of defining a purpose. Actually building an organization shaped by meaning and humanity - now that's something everyone can connect to.

Lack of growth & career development  

Employee development and career progression matter today more than ever. Employees join companies under the expectation that they will continuously build new skills and be presented with advanced career opportunities in exchange for their hard work and dedication. However, access to career growth remains limited with a growing number of employees reporting they’re unsatisfied with advancement pathways. 

HR leaders observe the lack of career growth opportunities to be one of the strongest predictors of attrition risk. Without clear expectations and established processes to expand skills, take on new challenges and progress in careers, employees see no reason to stay invested in employers unwilling or unable to invest in their long term career growth.

This growth drought reflects another offshoot of the broken bond - with employers not reciprocating the loyalty they expect from employees by investing in their learning and growth. Employees who feel stagnated will look for new opportunities out of necessity.

Lack of flexibility & empathy

It's not surprising that a lot of companies are facing backlash from employees on the intertwined issues of flexibility and empathy - or rather, a lack thereof. 

Especially over the last few years, people have grown accustomed to having more control over personal life, setting their schedules, flexible work arrangements and establishing boundaries between work and home. They've prioritized mental health and work-life balance after dealing with immense stress.

A woman holding her head to display lack of flexibility and anxiety at a workplace.

Yet so many old-school leaders cling to outdated assumptions that flexibility signals weakness or lack of commitment. That rigidity and absence of empathy about peoples' complex lives is damaging employer-employee relationships and causing turnover.

Many managers remain stuck in a command-and-control mindset built on dated principles and memories of pre-pandemic office vibes. They micromanage schedules, shame people into coming into the office, and make people feel guilty about taking time for doctor's appointments or family commitments.

On the flip side, the work environment and the workforce has evolved. People expect and demand both flexibility and empathy as non-negotiable table stakes these days. Taking those benefits away feels personal and breeds resentment.

If companies aren't adapting to meet those needs with balance, empathy, and compassion they'll continue to wrestle with the fallout of disengaged, frustrated employees who have one foot out the door at all times. 

Some advice to organizations:

  • Have real conversations with employees regarding what flexible arrangements actually entail
  • Show people they can prioritize wellness and still produce great work
  • Back up policies about self-care with actual support systems
  • And, demonstrate through daily actions - not empty promises - that you genuinely care about employees as humans with full lives, not just productivity metrics.

By acknowledging these challenges and the imperative for change, and taking action, employers can begin to win back the trust of their workforce and move towards a more balanced, healthy relationship that benefits both parties.

Diagnosing the root causes

Understanding the underlying issues that lead to a deteriorating employer-employee relationship is crucial for initiating meaningful recovery. A deep dive into the root causes often reveals a complex interplay of factors that, if not addressed, can continue to erode trust and satisfaction.

  1. Organizational culture's influence: A toxic or misaligned organizational culture can significantly impact employee morale and engagement. It's essential to assess how the current culture supports or hinders employee well-being, engagement, and the expression of values. Does the culture promote inclusivity, recognition, and growth? Or does it inadvertently foster unhealthy competition, silos, and a lack of transparency? Identifying these cultural aspects can pinpoint areas for improvement.
  2. The role of communication breakdown: Effective communication is the lifeline of any healthy relationship, including those within the workplace. A breakdown in communication channels can lead to misinformation, assumptions, and a general sense of being undervalued or unheard. Examining how information is shared, the accessibility of leadership, and whether feedback mechanisms are truly open and constructive can highlight critical communication gaps that need bridging.
  3. Mismatched expectations: Often, the friction between employers and employees stems from a fundamental mismatch regarding expectations. This discrepancy can relate to job roles, career progression, work-life balance, organizational direction, etc. Understanding expectations—both stated and unstated—requires honest conversations and a willingness to adjust and realign often.
  4. Lack of recognition and appreciation: Feeling undervalued is a common grievance among employees and a significant contributor to disengagement and turnover. An examination of how recognition and appreciation are expressed within the organization can reveal whether employees feel genuinely valued for their contributions or if token gestures undermine the intended message of gratitude.
  5. Inflexibility and resistance to change: This includes not just flexible working arrangements but also adaptability in strategies, processes, and leadership styles. Identifying areas where inflexibility is holding back progress or causing frustration can guide the development of more adaptive and responsive approaches.

Addressing these root causes requires a commitment to transparency, a willingness to listen, and the courage to make meaningful changes. By diagnosing these underlying issues, organizations can take the first steps towards healing and rebuilding a strong, mutually respectful and beneficial employer-employee relationship.

Beginning the recovery process

As outlined above, the data leaves no room for doubt - we have a serious relationship crisis at hand between employers and employees. You might say, we're at a pivotal juncture when it comes to the health of relationships binding many employers and employees today. All signs point to serious cracks in the foundation - from attrition rates and engagement surveys to both employer and employee performance.

Trust and good will can't be taken for granted any longer.

Leaders who continue to dismiss mounting employee dissatisfaction rather than confronting issues head-on do so at their own peril. No organization can afford to continuously hemorrhage knowledge and talent. But here’s the upside - broken bonds can heal through openness, courageous listening and bridge-building on both sides. The responsibility falls on executives first to course correct based on candid yet constructive feedback rather than rationalizing away, and ignoring concerns. 

Rebuilding the employee-employer relationship — Peoplelogic checklist

Here are some ideas for leaders who want to take the first step toward rebuilding the strong employee-employer relationship:

  • Authenticity matters - don't superficially praise people as the company’s greatest asset while simultaneously denying them flexibility, advancement, or purpose. Align rhetoric with reality. Replace talk with action by taking the time to understand individuals' needs and expectations and taking steps to meet them.

  • Provide visibility into how employee perspectives factor into major decisions. Even if the outcome remains unchanged, the level of transparency around factors weighed demonstrates leaders took concerns seriously.

  • Transform static policies handed down as directives into living documents owned collectively to allow for flexibility based on regular input and reviewed. Treat employees as partners in co-creating a culture where everyone can thrive together.

Recognizing the pathway to mend the frayed threads of employer-employee relationships necessitates not just a shift in strategy but a transformation in mindset. The journey toward rebuilding begins with a proactive stance from leadership, as outlined - moving beyond mere acknowledgment of issues to taking tangible steps aimed at fostering a culture of respect, trust, and mutual growth.

This process of healing and building bridges sets the stage for a deeper, more foundational principle: mutual commitment. It is within this evolved landscape, that leaders have laid the groundwork for open communication, transparency, and co-created solutions, that the true essence of mutual commitment begins to take shape.

Mutual commitment

A successful relationship necessitates commitment from both the employer and the employee (Harvard Business Review). Employers demonstrate commitment by investing in their employees' development, ensuring job stability, and offering competitive benefits. Employees exhibit commitment through discretion, loyalty, and a forward-thinking approach.

Mutual commitment in the employer-employee relationship yields various benefits that enhance both individual well-being and organizational success:

  1. Higher job satisfaction: A strong commitment from both parties leads to increased job satisfaction among employees, fostering a positive work environment.
  2. Increased employee engagement: Mutual commitment encourages employees to be more engaged in their work and dedicated to the company's success, resulting in higher levels of productivity.
  3. Enhanced productivity: When employees feel supported and valued by their employer, they are motivated to perform at their best, leading to improved productivity and work output.
  4. Improved communication: A solid employer-employee relationship promotes open and effective communication, allowing for better teamwork, problem-solving, and overall efficiency.
  5. Higher employee retention: Strong relationships foster loyalty and commitment among employees, reducing turnover rates and associated costs.
  6. Professional growth: Employers investing in employees' development signal care for their growth, leading to improved skills, morale, and career advancement.
  7. Employee loyalty and advocacy: Positive relationships result in employees speaking positively about the company, becoming brand advocates both within and outside the workplace.

Mutual commitment between employers and employees not only enhances individual job satisfaction and engagement but also contributes significantly to organizational success through increased productivity, improved communication, and higher retention rates.

To conclude

The good news is, the broken employer-employee bond can heal. Recovery starts with acknowledging and diagnosing core issues like engagement declines, opportunity barriers, purpose gaps, trust erosion and inflexibility fueling estrangement on both sides. Repairing broken bonds hinges profoundly on dialogue, not monologues. 

Reconciliation remains possible - if leaders stay committed to listening to employees with open minds and hearts and commit to reciprocate the contribution employees make to the business, with equal or greater investment in each employee's continuous growth.

This article is part of a series discussing The Broken Bond: Healing the Employer-Employee Relationship that will be published over the course of the next several weeks. The chapters in this guide provide actionable strategies to repair broken bonds through transparency, trust-building, upskilling programs, empathy, compassion, and more.

Subscribe to The Broken Bond Newsletter to get stories, tips, advice, templates, and more about how to build and maintain an optimal employee/employer relationship delivered straight to your inbox.

Try Peoplelogic for free

Unlimited freemium for 14 days. Easy set up. No credit card required. 99% in customer satisfaction from G2 users.