As a former consultant in the compensation, benefits and HR arena, I am often asked about improving that elusive employee engagement, as if there is a formula. I was having a similar conversation this morning with a good friend and compensation person in a major organization. When I started to chuckle, he asked why?
The problem is employers have been after this difficult goal for years, but it has become even more elusive in the last ten years. Why? Because employers killed employee engagement. You cannot treat employees poorly and not shoot straight with them during difficult times, and then say every thing is alright now and we want you to be engaged.
During the most recent economic downturn and even before, employers, cut pay, froze pay, downsized, right sized, off shored, and outsourced all in the name of controlling expenses. It was not unusual for people to be let go and then walked to their desk to collect their things and escorted out the door.
Employers would say we have to hold the salary budget tight as things are tough, going to be tough or it is too soon to adjust pay. Or, one of my least favorite tactics is to let people go before salary increase time and not adjust the median increase forward. In other words, they would cut the bottom performers and force fit the performance metrics down making a “meets expectation” performer a “partially meets” as the distribution of performance is now out of whack.
Yet, it need not be this way. There was a company in Germany where leaders sat down with all employees during the recession. They said times are tough, but we all are going to give a little, so the CEO, EVPs, and all employees, took pay cuts that would be restored in full when times got better. The logic is the company did not want to let anyone go. Everyone pitched in. This is a strong message. You should not be surprised, these employees remain engaged throughout.
Employee engagement is not created by a panacea. Using the Nordstrom model, it would look like inverting the pyramid where customers are at the top and people who serve them are next, with shareholders at the bottom. The thesis is if we treat our customers and those who serve our customers well, the shareholders will make more money.Yet, this is a mission where everything flows from the customer. It also allowed a communication avenue for the best ideas to flow from those closest to the customer.
I have written before about Paul O’Neill who turned around Alcoa in the 1980s. He focused on employee safety first and foremost. Why? It was the only thing he could get management and the union leadership to agree on. As a result, communication improved up, down and across the organization as safety improved. But, with new found empowerment, process and customer service improvement ideas started flowing from those closest to the action.
Engage employees, glean their input, value their opinion and pay them fairly. If companies do that, the employees will also feel they have a stake in the game. If you set this framework in motion, decisions can be made in support of this mission, whether they be compensation, benefits, flex schedules, stock ownership, etc.
One final thought is the commitment has to be more than mere words. O’Neill got management attention when a few weeks into his tenure, an employee was killed in an accident. He gathered his leaders together and said “We killed this man. I want to know in 24 hours, how he died, why he died and what we can do to not letting it happen again.” I don’t know about you, but that is what leadership looks like. I would be willing to work hard for this leader.