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Apr 20, 2011

Here’s a sobering but not all that surprising stat: only a third of workers (31 percent) say they are engaged in their job, and 17 percent admit that they are actively disengaged.

Frankly, after all we’ve heard about unhappy workers who are ready to bolt for another job as the economy improves, I’m surprised that these numbers aren’t a lot worse. But that’s what comes from a new study titled Employee Engagement Report 2011 by global consulting firm BlessingWhite.

Conducted from July through October 2010, the Employee Engagement Report explores workplace attitudes among employees on four continents (27 percent in North America) and is based on survey responses of nearly 11,000 employed professionals.

Here are some of the report’s key findings:

Employee Engagement Report highlights

  • Fewer than 1 in 3 employees worldwide (31 percent) are Engaged. Nearly 1 in 5 (17 engaged) are actually Disengaged. Engagement levels vary by region from a high of 37 percent in India to a low of 17 percent in China. In North America, 33 percent are Engaged and 18 percent Disengaged.
  • Despite the economic recession, engagement levels around the world remained roughly stable when comparing early 2008 and mid-2010.
  • More employees are looking for new opportunities outside their organization than they were in 2008, suggesting that 2011 will be a challenging year for retention (and a hot market for firms looking to attract top talent).
  • Consistent with the 2008 findings, there is a strong correlation between engagement levels and age, role/level, and tenure in the organization. Older employees and people in positions of power and authority are most likely to be Engaged. So are long-term employees (7 plus years with an organization). Employees who work in departments closest to strategy decisions and customer relationships tend to be more Engaged as well.
  • Engaged employees plan to stay for what they give; the Disengaged stay for what they get, suggesting that organizations can benefit from a targeted retention strategy.
  • Employees worldwide view opportunities to apply their talents, career development, and training as top drivers of job satisfaction. When it comes to contribution, their needs vary considerably, reflecting their circumstances (e.g., region, age, function, engagement level).
  • Trust in executives can have more than twice the impact on engagement levels than trust in immediate managers does. However, consistent with past studies, employees are more likely to trust their immediate managers than the executives in their organization.
  • Managers are not necessarily doing the things that matter most. The actions that corrrelate the most with high engagement are not always the ones that receive the most favorable ratings. And in some regions relationships trump skills, that is, employees’ knowledge of their managers as “people” behind their titles appears to impact engagement levels more than manager actions
  • Executives appear to struggle with key leadership behaviors correlated to engagement, yet the findings suggest executive behaviors can have a greater potential impact on engagement than manager actions.
  • Most alarming: Executives aren’t getting the basics of performance right. Creating an environment that supports high performance is the item that received the least favorable response in the entire survey; it also has among the strongest correlations with engagement levels.
  • Engagement surveys without visible follow-up action may actually decrease engagement levels, suggesting that organizations think twice before flipping the switch on measurement without 100 percent commitment for action planning based on the results.

Higher engagement increases ROI

“Business leaders are right to be concerned about retention of top talent,” said BlessingWhite CEO Christopher Rice in a press release about the report. “And while raises may encourage some workers to stick around, our findings suggest that employees – especially high performers — will remain in jobs that challenge them, utilize their expertise, and provide meaning.”

Rice advises business leaders to help their workforce rethink career notions. “When employees understand that today’s career is all about creating a portfolio of assignments and projects, not necessarily promotions and new titles, they’re better prepared to concentrate on finding work that they enjoy – and work that can help the organization achieve its goals.”

What I found interesting here was how the Blessing White Employee Engagement Report breaks down engagement into five different levels: Engaged, Almost Engaged, Honeymooner & Hamsters, Crash & Burners, and Disengaged. Frankly, it’s worth looking at this report just to get a fix on how engaged or disengaged a Honeymooner or Hamster is.

But beyond the funny titles for levels of engagement, what the Employee Engagement Report hammers home is the business case for why employee engagement is really important — studies showing that organizations with high engagement levels, according to a Hewitt study, had “total shareholder return that was 19 percent higher than average in 2009. In low-engagement organizations, total shareholder return was actually 44 percent below average.”

Although I continue to bump into far too many executives who still think that employee engagement is some soft and silly business metric, this report shows that it is clearly a strong driver of higher ROI, especially across a global workforce.

Whether it is a growing problem in the post-recession economy still remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: employee engagement is something every executive and management team needs to take seriously, because as the report clearly states, “The social contract between employees and employers is evolving rapidly. It is a domain that is ripe for new thinking and innovative models as organizations experiment with the best solution for their particular business dynamic.”