I Don’t Mean to Be Offensive, But Your Employee Engagement Stinks

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My husband likes to point out that every time I start out a conversation by saying “I don’t mean to be offensive…” I ultimately end up saying something that offends. So brace yourself, because I’m about to push your buttons.

I don’t mean to be offensive, but why don’t you do more to engage your employees?

In other words, why does your employee engagement stink?

Talking a good game

I know many organizations talk a good game when it comes to employee engagement, but how many of you actually walk the walk? According to the latest Towers Watson survey, not many. The study found that 63 percent of workers are not engaged and are struggling to cope with work.

That means that only 37 percent of employees are giving their all to your organization! What if only 37 percent of your products or services were at their best — would that be acceptable? I hardly think so.

So why is it that so many of you are OK with such an abysmal number? And why do you keep squeezing more out of an already overloaded team?

It can’t be because you don’t care. I mean, data is everywhere showing that higher employee engagement contributes directly to the bottom line, and every organization cares about the bottom line. So that leads me to believe then that perhaps you don’t know how to improve engagement.

Even rock icons know how to engage

I went to a Neil Diamond concert last week, excited to hear the legend. I expected to sing along to some songs, but I didn’t expect to be recruited to be a Neil fan – I thought I already was. But Neil knows better. He knows that his job at each and every concert is to engage his fans.

He came out on stage, told us that he has been playing that particular venue since 1971, and then proceeded to say “We want to earn your loyalty tonight.” Imagine after 40 years of playing a venue and 20,000 people paying big bucks to see his show, he walked out on stage with the goal of earning his fan’s loyalty!

What if your company had the same goal each and every day your employees arrived for “the show?” What would it look like at your company if your main goal was to earn the loyalty of your employees? My guess is that productivity would increase, engagement would skyrocket, customer service would improve, and turnover would plummet.

Neil Diamond knows how to engage people -- does your company?

Notice that Neil used the word “earn.” He knows that he doesn’t just get loyalty by showing up. He knows that it is going to require work on his part and he is transparent about it, just as we should be with our employees. He also knows that working hard and being transparent aren’t enough.

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He has had to craft just the right combination of words for his songs to energize the audience. He has to display passion for what he does and commitment to giving the crowd an unforgettable experience. Through his unique voice and authentic approach, Neil Diamond moves the crowd from being a group of independent strangers at the onset to “reaching out” and “touching hands” as they collectively belt out Sweet Caroline.

You should have the same goal. You should display the same passion and commitment.

You can create your own loyalty by putting together a winning talent management strategy that includes just the right combination of programs that speak to your employees and causes them to collectively sing along to the goals your organization is aligned around.

What’s an organization to do?

As I walked around the exhibit hall at a SHRM talent management conference recently, I was dismayed by the overwhelming emphasis on recruiting. I saw booth upon booth devoted to all of the activities that are important to successfully recruiting top candidates – sourcing, attracting, selecting, interviewing, and onboarding. And the reality is that over half of those people are going to leave their organization after one year. By year two, that number goes up to 76 percent!

If companies spent a fraction of their recruiting budget on activities that engage those employees, they wouldn’t have to spend nearly so much to bring new people in the door.

Here’s how to earn employee loyalty:

  • Understand what speaks to your employees. Just like some songs speak more to the crowd than others, some programs are more impactful than others. Do a needs assessment, survey, focus group, risk profile, whatever it takes, but find the things that inspire your employees to be their best and try them out. But don’t just create the programs on your own. Involve employees in crafting the solutions that are important to them.
  • Rethink job expectations. Stop overworking employees. How much of what is expected of a particular job is really critical to that role’s success? If the President of the United States can design his job so that he can be home in the evenings for dinner with his family, shouldn’t we be able to make our jobs work a little better to support our lives as well? Challenge each employee to eliminate 20 percent of their role to focus only on the things that matter while freeing up their time, energy and creativity.
  • Embed Work-Life into your culture. Make it a natural part of your culture to talk about both personal and professional goals. Move beyond a flex policy and truly embrace new ways of working that benefit both the employee and the organization. Build work-life into performance evaluation and career-path discussions so employees are making action plans for how they will “do it all” and avoid burnout every step of their career.
  • Focus on teams vs. individuals. Align teams so that the responsibilities of any particular job don’t fall solely on one person but rather are absorbed by a team of people that collectively accomplish their goals. Invest in team success by giving your teams tools to be more collaborative, aligned and productive.
  • Offer coaching. Build culture change through individual change. Help employees change mindsets and behaviors that get in the way of their success. Help managers open their minds to new ways of working. Help employees start thinking about how to “have it all” at an earlier point in their careers. Provide new parents with coaching that helps them think through short- and long-term career strategies and overcome self-sabotaging behaviors like perfectionism and guilt.
  • Innovate time off. Nearly everyone can drive hard when busy times demand it, but most of us have a breaking point when burnout is bound to set in. Restructure jobs to build in mandatory or optional breaks that provide relief and an opportunity to recharge. This might mean building in one week off for every three weeks of heavy travel, offering sabbaticals after six years of service, or mandating vacation minimums. Require leaders to role model behaviors that make it ok to rejuvenate.
  • Inspire your employees. The more leaders can connect with employees on a personal level, the more the employees will naturally show their loyalty. Communicate transparently. Involve employees in developing solutions to organizational problems. Build trust by giving trust. Paint a picture of the future that will inspire employees to not just show up, but rather inspire them to contribute their time and energy to something

Smart engagement strategies can work wonders on your recruiting costs. And smart organizations know that there is an investment they need to make in order to win their employees’ loyalty.

Sound like a lot of work? Sure, it can be. It takes time, energy and money. But the results are worth it — not just for your employees, but for the company’s bottom line too. Done well, it can bring 20,000 employees to their feet, cheering for an encore.

Teresa Hopke is senior vice president of Life Meets Work, a workforce innovation company. She partners with clients to discover new ways of working to improve employee performance and grow businesses. Hopke’s work has been featured in the books Battling to Be the Best and Innovation Excellence. Contact her at thopke@lifemeetswork.com .


13 Comments on “I Don’t Mean to Be Offensive, But Your Employee Engagement Stinks

  1. There is a reason Neil Diamond, despite being dissed by music critics, caricatured on SNL, and being the punchline of jokes for the too cool crowd, still sells out arenas, soccer stadiums (in South Africa) and other concert venues all over the world 46 years after his first hit.  Fan Loyalty.  And fans are fickle!  You are so right that he earned this loyalty through his live performances.  And, I might add, his humble attitude.  He is not only a gifted singer-songwriter but a brilliant businessman and, evidently, a dream boss.  (Most of his band has been with him for over 30 years – how rare is that in the music industry!)

    Anyway, great analogy to employee engagement.

    1. Thanks Jarrod.  I didn’t know the part about Neil’s band being with him for over 30 years – that’s pretty amazing in any company, but especially so in the music industry!

  2. Well said is right! This is a great article.  Looking at a successful icon such as Diamond is a great way to see how to do it “right.”  I have to say, though, that I believe recruitment and engagement go hand in hand.  It is difficult and a waste of resources to work on engaging the wrong employees.  The goal of recruitment is to find the right person for the job.  If hiring managers invest the time to create a realistic and accurate job description, recruiters can find the best possible person for the position.  THEN the company can focus on working with that person to keep them engaged and passionate about what they do. Recruiting and engagement go hand and hand.  Often times a lack of engagement is due to job dissatisfaction which is the result of people taking a job that turned out to be very different from what they signed up for.  No amount of engagement will solve the problems created when the wrong person is hired for the job.
    Ken Schmitt

    1. Thanks Ken!  And just to clarify……I completely agree with you that recruiting is a crticially important investment an organization should make and that it should work hand in hand with engagment.  I just think that there is typically a disproportionate emphasis on recruiting in most organizations and a surprising lack of focus and investment on engagement.  It seems like a lot of organizations think that if they just invest in recruiting the right candidate then they can check the box and move on.  Organizations who get it know that they have to invest in getting the right candidates in the door in the first place AND that they have to keep investing to keep those candidates engaged once they are in the door. 

  3. I am not at all offended by your comments. It is about time people stood up and challenged the managers and leaders of all companies to take engagement seriously, to take their employees seriously.

    It is not easy, but it also doesn’t have to be expensive and, as you say, evidence to support the rewards are well documented. It seems to me not that CEOs and Boards do not know what engagement is, but that they are too lazy to be bothered to make the effort.

    1. Thanks for your comments Peter.  I agree with you that education about what engagement is isn’t the issue for leaders – finding the energy and commitment to take action is.  And to your point, the more we can challenge our managers and leaders and help them see how taking action can improve their business results, the better our businesses will be.

  4. Engagement is the rage now in leadership research. We read of values, motivation, communication, trust, and we work virtual, online, and other places, and some must work within walls. What we are really getting to is perhaps, can leaders trust competent people to work well when left to determine how, when, where and what to work on. What was the 70’s jargon, “I’m OK, your OK”?  Authority has its place but likely less so as we manifest a virtual workforce. Can you trust? 

  5. Looking a Linkedin profiles show that changing jobs every two – three years is common.  Do you think this is a result of poor employee engagement or a side effect of the new social media age?

  6. Thanks for the above article. You are quite right that some employers spend a lot of resources on recruiting people they consider to be the most talented and so on. Interestingly as they strive to do this, they seem to forget to raise their standards on engagement with the candidates they employ. For this reason, employees end up being disappointed with their places of work, because their initial contact with the organisations(or regarding information about them) was sprinkled with a lot of hype. In other words, the expectations of these employees get dashed as what they end up experiencing or witnessing, do not fit with what they were told initially.

    A lot of these organisations are mainly interested in setting unrealistic targets; they also tend not to be empathic enough with regards to certain employee issues and bias(in different forms) is rife. The effect of such situations, is that some work places become ‘battle grounds’. It could be quite challenging, as many workers spend a large proportion of the hours of a day, at work. This then tends to impact on other aspects of society such as the home, as well.

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