That elusive employee engagement

I just completed a very unscientific poll regarding whether people would be in another job or have another job title at this time next year. While the survey group was biased and the questions were simple, the end result of over 2,500 respondents is about 50% felt they would be in another job or have a new title.

Setting aside the veracity of the survey, many employees are eager to do something different. This is one sign the economy is percolating better, but it also sign that employee engagement continues to be largely elusive. Employees have become free agents since the turn of the century and employers have only one group to blame for it – the employers themselves. Employee engagement is lacking because employers killed it.  

As a retired manager, employee and consultant, I have witnessed countless layoffs, downsizings, rightsizings, reductions in force, offshoring, etc. I have also witnessed countless communications of how we have to keep the salary increase budget down because of a recession, downturn, not a full recovery, or because we need to simply watch expenses. With the recession, I have seen the elimination or curtailment of broad-based benefits and perquisites, on-job training, travel budgets, party budgets, office kitchen budgets, etc. that are like an ice-pick chipping away at a sculpture.

The end result is employees do not feel valued. Employers say employees are our most important asset, then the employees see examples of the above and they realize these are merely words. They witness long time employees unceremoniously walked out the door after a downsizing. They see such employees denied the ability to say goodbye. They do not learn of others in different offices in large companies who have been similarly treated until they reach out and the others are gone. What happened to Susan or Michael?

So, the fact employees have always been free agents, becomes even more true, and the employees execute on their newly discovered freedom. The result is employers are searching for ways to try to keep people. They did not have to worry about it as much until the last couple of years, but with an improved economy, others are now hiring. Yet, when a company shows by actions it does not care as much as they should for these assets, then the remaining assets are difficult to engage.

Here is a huge tip to employers. Treat your employees like you want to be treated. Improve communication up, down and across your organization seeking and using input on process improvements. Pay them fairly and include incentives that will make a difference to them and the organization. Teach your supervisors how to lead employees. Help the employees further their careers through training and offer internal movement within your company. Recognize these employees value their families and hobbies, so offer flexible schedules and paid time off.

There are other ideas, but one I will close with is how you treat employees when you must make cuts matters a great deal. The others who remain see this. If you treat people like they committed a crime, the people who remain start polishing their resume. The movie “Up in the Air” with George Clooney starring as a consultant for an outsourced firm that helps companies fire people is highly offensive to me that companies would do this. The company does not have the compassion to do this themselves.

Treat people like you want to be treated. Be fair and communicate as appropriate. Then, you can start looking for ways to attract, retain and reward employees.



15 thoughts on “That elusive employee engagement

  1. Excellent advice. You have just given your reading public the major reason for getting a liberal education! The only thing that is certain about the future is that it will change — as will your job. So be ready!!!

      • Yeah. We’re dealing with a work force made up of young people who have never had to do anything they didn’t want to do. They are spoiled and continually looking for a perfect fit (i.e., a job that will allow them to work short hours for big pay).

      • Some do not want to do the basic with which lays a foundation. Also, there is a sense if you accomplish a task once, you have mastered it, when you have only been through it one time.

  2. I was an assistant administrator in a home care agency. I did lots of hiring and terminating. Each person I hire was given a policy and procedure in-service that they signed off. Most people were given three write ups and then terminated. Some people for stealing or abuse received no warning. But when I terminated people I pointed out what they did wrong and reminded them of the P&P. I had people shake my hand as I showed them the door. I hired a woman who, unbeknown to me was after my job. I could have fought, but I didn’t. But after my termination, several of my loyal employees left. I was fair and as you say you treat people the way you want to be treated. Not to mention whether you like your job or not you should always do the best job you can. Bottom line I agree with all that you shared.

  3. This is an excellent post. I once worked for Pacific Bell. It’s home base was San Francisco and it reflected the values the City had in the 1990’s. In the late 90’s Pacific Bell was purchased by SBC. One could almost smell the change in corporate culture. I began to feel as if I worked for a plantation. I didn’t like it so I left. It was a good thing too because SBC almost immediately moved the call center jobs out of the country. That’s the the thing that American corporations need to think of: the goals of the Nation. Don’t tell your employees that they must sacrifice for the ‘good’ of the country until you’re willing to pay your full share of taxes.

    • Thanks for your pertinent comments based on your experience. Your story is a microcosm of corporate change in the 1980s and later. Yet, you hit upon a key concern and that is who will pay those taxes and buy US products when jobs are cut. I did not speak of the ratio of US CEO pay to the average worker, which is another reason for the lack of engagement. Thanks for stopping by and offering your thoughts.

    • Lisa, that is a terrific and on the mark quote. Even as a manager, I reached that point when we let too many people go or made too many decisions that made employees feel more like expenses than assets. My loyalty was to my colleagues and clients, not this amorphous company.

      • It is indeed. I have noted in a number of cases precisely this sort of behavior: the good worker is taken advantage of because the manager knows he or she will get the job done. It is critical in such cases that the employee be recognized, though many managers these days hesitate to do so lest they hurt the feelings of those who are not so recognized. We have become overly sensitive to possible hurt, even at the expense of hurting the one who deserves special mention.

      • Hugh, there is an old HR saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Public recognition will often ferret out the ones who feel slighted, but that is not necessarily a bad thing if it leads to constructive conversation on how the slighted person can achieve such notoriety. The important thing is to reward good performance whether it is private and/or public. Good comment, Keith

  4. Note to Readers: In earlier posts, I have noted that the best ideas for productivity, services and products often come from those closest to the activity. So, the more employees are engaged means the ideas have a chance to take footing. I wrote about Paul O’Neill who turned around Alcoa. He did so by improving the lines of communication between management and line people, so new ideas began bubbling up. Here is a link:

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