HR Insights, HR Management

Employee Engagement: “How Did Things Ever Get So Far Apart?”

The Godfather may have asked the question, but it is up to managers and HR professionals to give the answer. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“When I lead my portion of the orientation, I do not have the heart to tell them and I can’t look them in the eye. This is a horrible place. It is like I am leading them to slaughter.”

That interaction took place last week as I was talking to a potential client and ran into one of my former co-workers who now works there and is involved in orientation. That short conversation gave me all the insight I needed — and all that research could have never provided.

Fittingly, I was leaving in a few days to attend the Human Capital Institute Engagement and Retention workshop. While I participated in the Executive Workgroup Session (which was a pre-conference session), I did not stay for the entire event. However, I played this conversation scenario over and over in my mind as I drove to Boston.

There is a scene in The Godfather where Vito Corleone asks, “How did things ever get so far apart?” This question was asked after he had to come out of “retirement” to get things back on track.

When management and workers are out of synch

I found myself asking the same basic question — how did organizations get this far out of sync with their workforce? Yes, there was the recession and the resulting fallout, but the seeds of this disengagement were sown long before the recession hit. The recession simply confirmed, exposed, and magnified all the fissures that were already there, albeit dormant.

I have always felt that if you lay off people with dignity and professionalism, the word would get around that you are a caring organization, the same as it does when it is done the wrong way.

The more I thought about this comment, the more I wondered how many other folks that are on the frontlines with new employees feel this? They’re on the beachhead of engagement; how many others in that important role feel the same way?

When I designed the onboarding program at Martha Stewart, I would lead the session every Monday morning. I would always begin by thanking the group for choosing us as a company and proceed to tell them why I felt that way. This would always set the tone for our day together. That program is now one of the featured sections in a just released book “Creative Onboarding Programs: Tools for Energizing Your Orientation Program” by Doris Sims, published by McGraw-Hill.

What if you were to hear that statement from one of your employees, let alone a leader in your orientation program or one of the managers?

Where does engagement start?

Engagement starts from the top, and senior management should be aware of the engagement gap as well as HR. If they are not aware, it is HR’s duty to bring it to the forefront.

I would like every senior leader to ask themselves the following question: Just how many of your employees are actually engaged? If they say approximately 50 percent, they are close. According to a recent Gallup study on employee engagement, about 54 percent of employees in the United States are not engaged and 17 percent are disengaged. Only 29 percent are engaged. But here are three key points to remember:

  • Engaged employees generate ideas, innovation, creativity, and other outcomes that deliver long term competitive advantage. They do not watch the clock; they are about getting it done. They do not need to be micromanaged. They are about getting it done.
  • Engaged employees love their workplace. They know what needs to be done and they do it. And the more that people will devote themselves to your cause on a voluntary basis, the more engaged your company can become.
  • Engaged companies value their employees. They show it in their actions towards employees, they walk the walk and talk the talk. Senior management gets it and uses every opportunity to sync up with their workforce.

A recent study by Green Peak Partners named interpersonal skills as the most important trait of the new leader. Another study by Towers Watson showed the intersection of engagement and financial performance and the results showed that companies with a highly engaged employee population turned in significantly better financial performance (a 5.75 percent difference in operating margins and a 3.44 percent difference in net profit margins) than did low-engagement workplaces.

Priority No. 1 for HR

How could something as important as engagement that has such a profound effect be so blatantly dismissed or ignored? If this were a marketing problem, customer service problem, or a production problem, all the forces within the organization would mobilize to attack it. There would not be this clueless and dismissive approach to what I have always believed is the MOST IMPORTANT ASSET in any company.

Companies are made up of people and it is their ideas, performance, and their ability, coupled with the correct strategy from management, that will allow companies to get it done and drive exceptional bottom line results.

HR departments should make this priority no 1. Because, if you are talking about retention, talent management, leadership development and all the other sweet spots, take a look at the basics first. Because, you can have all the others, but if no one wants to be there, it does not matter anyway.

This is a starting point, and by no means am I suggesting that this will rein in the loss of engagement, but what I do hope is that is causes us all to think about how IMPORTANT this issue is for your company.

My follow-up question to the person that told me the about her dilemma with new employees during orientation was that it is OK to have those feelings. Talk to your manager, or your manager’s manager, to get it out on the table. If you feel that this will fall on deaf ears, well, it may just be time to move on.

Because, sooner rather than later someone in senior management will play the role of Vito Corleone, ask the tough question themselves, and bring the issue to the forefront.

Ron Thomas is a human resources officer currently based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He formerly was director, talent and human resources solutions at Buck Consultants (a Xerox Company) and is certified by the Human Capital Institute as a Master Human Capital Strategist (MHCS) and Strategic Workforce Planner (SWP). He's also worked in senior HR roles with Martha Stewart Living and IBM. Ron serves on the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy. He also serves as a faculty partner and executive facilitator at the Human Capital Institute. He has received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence by the World Human Resource Development Congress in Mumbai. Contact him at ronaldtthomas@gmail.com or on Twitter.
  • http://globoforce.blogspot.com Derek Irvine, Globoforce

    Great post, Ron. It brought to mind research just discussed on “Knowledge at WP Carey (ASU)” http://knowledge.wpcarey.asu.edu/article.cfm?articleid=1928# about a five year study of Chinese CEOs. The research found that when the CEOs personal values aligned with the company values and employees (especially middle managers) saw the CEOs living out the values they espoused, then engagement is much higher, along with loyalty of employees to the company. Quite interesting research.

    • http://twitter.com/ronald_thomas ronald_thomas

      Derek, thanks for the comment. I will check this out. McKinsey just did a piece of the same type
      goo.gl/P8ML. Hope you enjoy and thanks again for taking the time.

  • Arbitor427

    Employee engagement is not an “act” it is a process and it starts with HR but is continued and championed by staff managers and supervisors. The key is to build a “Communications Link” with your people and be viewed as a coach and mentor, not a disciplinarian, One of the best tools to accomplish this is the ALC Performance Development assessment. It provides clear coaching guidlines for management and a definitive workbook for staff. We recommend the version from HRDT (www.hrdt.net) as we find it inexpensive and extremely effective.

  • http://growingforward.net Scott Asai

    Although HR can help the situation, I see senior management as the catalyst to create engagement. HR does work for the company, but I don’t think it’s their responsibility fully. If HR is enabled, then it’s a different story.

  • http://twitter.com/jdlakecom John Lake

    Did anyone ever consider “terminology” as a cause for the breakdown?

    We now call our employees “Human Capital” (sorry, HCI),  ”Talent” (I’m guilty here), or my favorite, “Our greatest asset.” (Yeah, right there on the Balance Sheet between Machinery and Finished Goods Inventory!). Even Human “Resources” makes me shudder a little bit.

    If people are not treated as people (and it starts by referring to them as such), don’t expect them to do anything more than they are expected to do.  They’ll be the “machine” or “line item” you have called them (no engagement, just output) – and continue to search for an organization that will treat them as the human beings they are.  And you will be left wondering why there was a run on your “Talent Bank.”