Five Reasons Your CEO Doesn’t Care About Employee Engagement

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I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard about employee engagement at various webinars, lunches, and conferences. We talk about ways to improve it, ways to measure it and ways to sell it up and get it implemented.

Wait a second, strike that last one. We never talk about why having strong employee engagement (a no-brainer in most progressive HR circles) doesn’t resonate with the CEO.

Don’t get me wrong, she might shake her head agreeing with you or he may say everything your saying is right on. They might even believe it (or believe they believe it). And everyone knows they like to talk it up too, especially to new employees.

But then comes the time to take action. Whether it is developing or moving a manager who shouldn’t be in their role, managing your compensation, or changing the tiny pieces of your culture that robs engagement, there is resistance. And while it isn’t explicit, there are five reasons your CEO rejects improving employee engagement.

1. The company isn’t ready

It seems funny that the very reason one should start improving employee engagement is the first in the line of defense against it. “Look,” they say, “I understand the advantages but we just aren’t ready.” And guess what: they are probably right. But let’s also be frank that they are probably right about another thing: THEY aren’t ready. I’m sure you’ve all tried to implement something with a CEO’s half-hearted support (if you haven’t, the short version is somewhere between partial and total failure). You’re either going to have to build readiness through the CEO or through your fellow executives.

2. Jobs that don’t lend themselves to engagement

If you work for a hip, high tech firm and you think that employee engagement should be a simple, you’re right (at least for you). There are plenty of jobs out there that aren’t fun and don’t draw natural enthusiasm. Does that mean a guy working on a factory floor isn’t great at his job because he isn’t enthusiastic? Is it worth the cost of trying to “fix” engagement in jobs that are physically or mentally exhausting? Or is it better to think of proven processes that allow for stress relief while on the job and keep mistakes from being made? Your CEO knows the answer.

3. There’s no ROI

In order to drive employee engagement, you’re going to have to suffer some initial pain. Do you make enough money to make the pain worth it though? If you can’t answer in a concrete manner about the hard costs and expected benefits of increasing employee engagement, and only talk about soft benefits or are unrealistic about the impact, just forget about it. There are instances where fixing employee engagement might make sense, but you’ve got to make that case.

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4. Oh, hey look — another touchy feely HR initiative

Sure, we want people to be satisfied with their job and know they are making a difference. If you can swing that, pay everyone what they want, and still be in business, that’s even better. But if you have to prioritize between certain jobs or if part of one of your worker’s job description is “Change sewer filter and empty storage container,” there might be better ways to spend that money. Mainly, by giving that guy a bonus and a pat on the back (before he starts of course).

5. Engagement isn’t a real objective

If you want an employee to be engaged in their work, there is no training for that. Engagement is a matter of employee selection, leadership, and creating an environment that doesn’t get in the way of (and encourages) an engaged employee.

When you break it down, many managers aren’t asking for employee engagement, they are asking things like if an employee is thinking about the impact of their decisions on their company. Are they proactive in dealing with issues? Do I have to babysit them instead of telling them my expectations, giving them resources and trusting they’ll complete the work or ask for assistance? Especially think about this last one.

Honestly, a solid dose of communication, transparency, and performance management (not the “yearly evaluation” type either) could go a long way in taking care of that. And in the long term picture, dealing with those sources of pain you know exist but don’t have the guts to truly tackle (whether it be compensation, internal politics, or bad managers).

What do you think? Do CEO’s respect the idea of engagement but don’t do it when it comes down to take action?


17 Comments on “Five Reasons Your CEO Doesn’t Care About Employee Engagement

  1. Before you can convince a CEO to undertake an employee engagement improvement program, you need to define just what it is and what it matters. There is no consensus on the definition, though one offered back in 2006 by The Conference Board is oft-cited: “A heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his or her work.”

    The challenge is first to accurately measure this emotional connection and show how it matters. There are plenty of assessments and surveys from every vendor out there that purport to measure the former. Whether they do or not is largely in the eye of the beholder. But to demonstrate the latter? That’s a little fuzzier. Lots of studies show improvements in retention, productivity, and service by engaged employees. But correlating enhanced employee engagement to bottom line performance — the ROI in the post — has so far been elusive.

    1. I do agree that there needs to be an agreed upon definition, but it does not need to be a universal definition. It should be one that fits your organization. I do, however, disagree that measuring employee engagement is not elusive. There are plenty of ways to measure engagement in terms of dollar impact, but the CEO needs to be okay with estimates and believe in the methodology used to calculate the impact. Finance produces forecasts all the time, these are clearly not exact numbers, but their best guess. The CEO needs to give HR the same benefit of the doubt that they give Finance. Again, this is dependent upon having HR leaders in place who truly know how to measure this kind of impact. That is a whole different argument.

  2. Good article, Lance! Very practical-minded. I do have to take you to task on one item, though: the assumption that factory workers don’t like their jobs. My brother is a really smart guy, and he loves factory work! He told me the other day that his sole goal in life is to become a factory floor manager. he drives a forklift right now and is VERY engaged. 🙂

  3. HRM needs to take out the (wrongly perceived) touchy feely side to Employee Engagement and firmly attach EE to customer satisfaction and customer loyalty. You will find a very interested CEO then!

  4. I like this post a lot, Lance. I think the problem is that the word “engagement” is a lousy consultant-speak word. You can tell it was designed to sell somebody something. What CEO wants that?

    I think you hit it pretty accurately particularly with your #5.

    I’ll add that what CEOs want are employees that care about the success of the organization (as much as they do) and are willing to always think and act and perform in a way that will better the company.

    I don’t think most Senior Leaders really buy that whether or not you “have a best friend at work” means diddly. Can’t blame ’em, can you?

  5. Lance – your second to the last paragraph – isn’t that how you do get “engagement” – through communication, transparency and managing performance correctly? And the paragraph before that IS the definition of engagement – proactive effort on behalf of the company.

    Seems that the problem is the word – not the action. A rose by any other name?

    Engagement isn’t hard to define – it’s just really hard to do.

  6. Lance, excellent list. I could comment on all the points, but I’ll stick with the first. If the CEO doesn’t believe — isn’t ready — then the effort has no hope of achievement. You’ve begun to outline the challenges of engagement. And that’s the crux — employee engagement isn’t a single program you can point to.
    It’s multiple efforts, multiple initiatives, multiple actions, that lend to creating a work environment in which employees want to engage.

    That can be quite daunting. But it is possible. We believe strategic employee recognition is one of the best methods for creating that engaging culture. One of our five tenets of success is ensuring executive sponsorship. Without it, your program will only be marginally successful.

  7. I look at employee engagement and results through a sales lens – engagement is the feature and improved results are the benefit. High engagement is one critical strategy to generate desired results, as long as we have systems in place that are aligned and very competent team members.

    Very good article and solid points.

  8. Lance, great thought provoking title and content. Not a surprise to me that some CEO’s do not get it. I do not personally see why any mission critical CEO would not get this, especially in times like these when we are slowly coming out of a recession and is top of mind for most of the top executives.

    The only reasons some CEO’s doesn’t care about engagement are nicely stated in your article, however there are other reasons including, when not aligned to organizational strategy, middle management is confused about how to facilitate an engage environment and when using it as a buzz word instead facilitating the talk.

    Several reasons can be generated from my recent article: “Employee Retention – How to Keep Your Top Talent With the Right Mix of Programs” @

  9. The problem with employee engagement is that it is everything to everybody. I was at a conference recently, and they asked the audience what it was. Literally everything in the field of organization behavior was mentioned. Why would any CEO in his/her right mind buy into this? It’s an industry. It’s a nice idea. However, it is not THE thing that will drive performance because we are not answering the key question: “engaged in what?” What if employees are super engaged in doing the wrong stuff? That’s how firms that win the most engaged awards go into bankruptcy a few days after the celebration dinner.

    With all the money being spent on employee engagement, why are so many businesses not doing better? Maybe it’s because we have no idea what employees are engaged in. From what I can tell, they are engaged in more work and more overtime hours.

    I look forward to new conversations about “engaged in what” and then “so what?” What do employees get in return?

  10. No ROI? Do the math – but from a different angle.

    It costs at least 1.5-5 times annual salary to replace an individual who has voluntarily left an organization – increase the multiplier the higher you go into the business. No not just look at obvious expenses such as advertising, interviewing, and OJT once the newcomer is in, but the hidden costs such as lost customers or service opportunities, lost productivity while those “left behind”pick up the slack, lost growth opportunities, etc. all have to factor into the equation.

    If the employee chooses to stay (and, yes, it is a daily decision) the “asset” appreciates. Even if they move out of one position and into another within the organization, you still have return on the investment. But if they elect out of an organization, then everything you have spent becomes an “expense.”

    Which side of the balance sheet do you want to be on?

  11. Good post, Lance. If I may add my two cents, one of the blockages that some CEOs have is that “they are funny that way.” Meaning, they are wired to focus on things like data, profits, costs, and stuff like that. The human stuff does not compute for these CEOs. It’s not that they are bad. It’s how they are made. The way to “get through to” these CEOs is to go via their interests.

  12. I’ve only just seen this post and the various comments below. Bit late, I know, but I still feel it is worth adding my ‘two pennorth’.

    First things first. You can’t ‘fix engagement’ in any jobs, whether they’re hip companies or not. Employees are either engaged or they’re not. Secondly, why on earth wouldn’t you couch engagement in terms of competitive advantage, and therefore all the things that CEOs actually do care about? And thirdly, what does it mean to ask ‘what do employees get in return’? That just seems to me to be missing the point completely.

    Engaged employees are engaged because they are satisfied with their jobs and the place they work, are loyal to you, their employer, prepared to recommend you to friends and family as a place to work and, above all, proud of where they work. It doesn’t have to be fun all the time – you can be all of these things even if part of your role is to ‘change sewer filter and empty storage container’.

    It also doesn’t have to cost the earth, although of course, good pay rates are likely to give you a  head start. Except good pay is only a short term motivator, as we all know. Making sure managers and leaders in the company recognise employee achievement is not expensive. Making sure employees are kept aware of what the company is doing is not expensive. 

    One thing is definitely true. Employee engagement has become an industry in its own right, and consultancy firms out there are, I’m sure, charging big fees to persuade CEOs to spend big money on stuff that sounds good but at the end of the day is just not important. 

    Having an engaged workforce is not the result of some wand waving. It is the result of good managers practising good management. Why is that difficult to understand and difficult to communicate?

  13. Really?! There are intelligent professional who think any of this? #2, pick any job (bus driver, janitor, whatever) and you can enjoy your work and relationship with your boss or not. You can be engaged or disengaged. Job doesn’t matter. #3) No ROI? How about 5x higher stock returns (Kenexa research), 6% higher profit (Towers Perrin), etc etc.

    Kevin Kruse
    Author, Employee Engagement 2.0

  14. We run into this in our work on creating corporate cultures (related to engagement). If we feel the CEO is not on board with efforts to drive culture change then we decline engagements. Involvement of leadership is that important because leaders are the drivers of company values. As to reasons why a CEO might not care you’ve got a decent list started. Here are common issues that are helpful in evaluating whether culture change (increased engagement) is worth considering.
    You are being outperformed in your categoryYou have high turnover in key positionsYour employee engagement and/or customer satisfaction scores are lowYour financial performance is not where you want to beYou just want to go from good to great

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