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I Was a Workforce Prisoner: What I Did and What You Can Do, Too


You’ve probably met that person at work.

They’ve been at your company a long time. And they’re not thrilled about it.

But they don’t seem to be doing anything to change.

I’ve known that person.

And for a while in my career, I became that person.

I was, as global consulting firm Aon Hewitt cites in a new study on employee engagement, a workforce prisoner.

What’s a Workforce Prisoner?

Aon Hewitt coined the term “workforce prisoner” as part of their ongoing research on employee engagement in organizations.

(Full disclosure: I was a principal at predecessor firm Hewitt Associates and worked with their data model to help several large companies create strategies to increase the engagement of their people. So I cop to a curse of knowledge, as well as love for my clients, friends & readers from that organization, past & present.)

Aon Hewitt measures engaged employees—the kind who really make an organization successful—as those who:

  • Say positive things about the company,
  • Stay with the organization, and
  • Strive to go above and beyond

Recently, the firm released data on the segment of people who are high in the “stay” bucket, but low on the other two. They’ve labeled those folks the “workforce prisoners.”

They’re not engaged, and don’t want to do anything about it.

Seems counter-intuitive, right?

After all, we’d typically expect that if someone doesn’t say positive things about where they work, and doesn’t do a good job, then why-o-why would they stay?

It’s All About Money. Or Is It?

One conclusion the Aon data makes is that these “prisoners” tend to be long-tenured employees.

workforce prisoners, from Aon Hewitt

And, since they’ve been there longer, they’re often paid above market value (in other words, paid more than what someone being hired for their job today would make.)


The report says:

“These employees may be interested in leaving, but they do not look for opportunities elsewhere because they have done the research and have found that they are being paid more than they are worth in the open market. As a result, they sit tight.”

And I can understand that neat & tidy conclusion.

And it might be true for some people, in some narrowly defined roles and parts of the country. So I’m open to the possibility.

But in most situations, I believe that conclusion is wrong.

What’s REALLY Going On That’s Keeping You a Workforce Prisoner?

Based on my experience with hundreds of coaching clients, students, and hearing your stories and questions you write me daily here at, and yes, from my own personal path, here’s what I notice is REALLY going on when you’ve become a “workforce prisoner.”

You have NOT done the research

If your “research” has been comprised of submitting a resume through an online job board, and then throwing up your hands in disgust after you never hear from anyone, you haven’t done the research.

If you’re basing your conclusions on the recruiter who found you on LinkedIn, wrote you a great note, but never scheduled the interview, you haven’t done the research.


Or maybe you scanned through job listings and they all looked too junior for you, so you didn’t even bother to apply.

Or you assumed there were no other opportunities right inside your own company since no one was talking about them.

Almost every day, I hear someone cite examples like these as “proof” that their next job doesn’t exist, that their financial or commute or flexibility or growth needs can’t be met.


One or two incidents does not constitute proof.

Think about it this way.

When a baby takes her first steps, and then promptly falls, we don’t say, “Well, I guess that means she’ll never walk. Let’s strap her into the chair and get used to pushing her around forever.”

That’d be silly.

And inhumane.

Why do we treat ourselves and our careers with that same inhumane judgement?

What Good Research Looks Like

Before you decide there’s no hope and you’ll just have to stay stuck, make sure you’ve actively sourced multiple points of data before you commit to a mindset of being in workforce prison.

(Because after all, it is a mindset, right? You control three very important factors that are involved in your career, and one of them is everything you think.)

Actively sourcing multiple points of data might mean:

Get the picture? One or two pieces of data do not equal proof that’s strong enough to keep you stuck. Keep looking.

That’s how I stopped being a workforce prisoner.

Yup, this happened to me. I’m not proud of it. I was staying, but not “saying” or “striving.”

And at first, I thought my company would solve the problem for me. Promote me. Hand me a new opportunity.

See me for what I could be, not just for what I was. 

And that didn’t happen.

And everyone around me said things like:

  • Why would you leave such a good place to work?
  • You make great money for what you do, don’t you?
  • You like the people there, don’t you?
  • You’ve been there so long–you’d have to just start over anywhere else. So why would you?

But I kept doing the research.

That led me to hiring my first coach and getting clear about what I wanted now. Which lead me to learning about the world of professional leadership & business coaching. Which led me to the International Coach Federation, my professional trade association, and its members led me to people who’d been just like me.

And stealing their ideas and inspiration led me to design, pitch, get approval, and then lead a small coaching business inside the business I’d worked in for years.

A new gig in an old place.

And over time, that opportunity led me here to you.

Please don’t be a workforce prisoner.

If you’ve been in one company for a long time, it’s easy to lose sight of the possibilities of what might be next.

I was.

And I’m grateful to the family, teachers, coaches, and others around me who kicked me in the grass and helped me recognize that I did not have to remain that person for long.

HOW ‘BOUT YOU? Know a workforce prisoner? Are you one, and you’re ready to break out? Email me privately and tell me more. I read all my emails and answer as many as I can, as soon as I can.

Let’s break some locks together.

I also have hundreds of free tools here, plus my new guide, 3 Secret Ways to Switch Gears in Your Career is out now. Get it here.