Weekly Wrap: Are We Wasting Our Time on Employee Engagement?

Loyal readers of TLNT know that we have a lot of content surrounding the concept of employee engagement because, well, no one seems to have a really good handle on employee engagement.

The issues that seem to always pop up are:

  1. Just what is “engagement, because no one seems able to define it very well; and,
  2. Even if we can figure out how to define it, what is the benefit of improved employee engagement, anyway

Those two points seem to be the fuel for a never-ending stream of articles, commentary, and debate. I’m not going to dig into them again here, except to share something that I picked up from a recent Washington Post On Leadership column that seemed to have gotten lost during the extended July 4th holiday.

Little change in engagement in good times and bad

The column — Don’t like your job (or career?) You’re not alone — was interesting enough, but what jumped out at me was what it said about employee engagement numbers.

In reality, the ratio of “engaged” to “disengaged” employees has remained relatively stable since Gallup began the tracking the measure in 2000. Since then, through two periods of weak economic growth – one minor and one major – the percentage of people truly engaged in their jobs has only fluctuated by 4 percentage points. Ironically, in 2000 and 2005, both good years for the economy, just 26 percent of people felt engaged at work – a low point in the study – compared with 30 percent in 2001, 2002, and 2012, hardly banner years when it came to the job market. Similarly, the study found that in 2009, a terrible year for jobs, 18 percent of people were “actively disengaged” at work, a lower ratio than in 2007, before the Great Recession began.”

These numbers surprised me, because they seem to say that employee’s don’t feel all that more engaged in good times — when organizations tend to spend more, and give more, to their workers — than they do in not-so-good times. That doesn’t square with what I have been reading in all those articles and blog posts about employee engagement.

Or, maybe these poll numbers really point to the fact that engagement isn’t tied to the state of the economy or the general economic condition workers find themselves surrounded by, bur rather, by how they feel about their specific workplace in both good times and bad?

Article Continues Below

Are we focusing on the wrong thing?

Washington Post On Leadership columnist Jena McGregor made this point as well, writing that:

Perhaps when the economy is struggling, we’re more grateful to have jobs, even ones we don’t like so much. Or perhaps when the economy is good, we’re a little more willing to think the grass is greener and wish we had something different. Or more likely, as I’m sure Gallup would agree, how engaged we are with our jobs – or our chosen career – has little to do with the economy and a lot more to do with the quality of the managers and leaders for whom we work.”

Or, maybe all of this really points to a simpler conclusion: that we are all wasting our time focusing on employee engagement, because in both good times and bad, the numbers really don’t change that much. Maybe, it REALLY is more about performance than engagement, as TLNT contributor Jason Lauritsen pointed out here:

Employee engagement isn’t about people feeling good about work and enjoying their experience, at least not when you run a for-profit business. Employee engagement must first be about impacting and improving company performance. …

While managing for employee engagement is a good thing, it’s a means to an end. We cannot forget that without performance, we won’t have a company to employ people in the first place.

Employee engagement for the sake of engagement is wasted energy. Focus on performance and use engagement as it was intended in the first place — as a tool to collect information that helps you drive better results.”

This make you wonder if perhaps focusing on employee engagement as an end goal is a waste of time. And, as the numbers seem to show us, it takes more than a good (or bad) economic environment to move the engagement needle.  Maybe a focus on performance instead IS the way to go instead.

The debate over BYOD policies

Of course, there’s more than the never-ending debate over employee engagement in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Guess who new CEOs always seem to fire first? (Hint: It begins with “h”) The HBR blog always seems to write about interesting workplace issues, and this week the focus was on new research by RHR international about which executives incoming CEOs are most likely to replace first. As the article notes (in Q&A) format, (“Question): It wasn’t terribly surprising to me that the CHRO and the CMO are two that are likely to leave. But why the General Counsel? (Answer:) That was an odd one, and I don’t have a great answer for that. Certainly we know that heads of finance and HR tend to move around a lot more because the skills are very transferrable, and in fact it looks better for an HR executive or CFO to show a breadth of industry. You actually get a bit disadvantaged if you’ve been in the same company or the same industry your whole career, as an HR person.”
  • Pros and cons of “BYOD” (bring your own device) policies: Miami Herald workplace columnist Cindy Krischer Goodmanwaded into the debate over bring your own device to work policies this week. And, such policies can provide big savings for employers. “BYOD is like the Wild West, rules are being created and changed on the fly,” says Ilan Sredni, an Information Technology expert and CEO of Palindrome Consulting in Miami. A variety of dynamics are driving the Bring Your Own Device trend. Workers are more satisfied when we use our own preferred devices and using our tablets, smartphones and laptops saves an employer money in buying and maintaining equipment. A recent study by CIOInsight shows companies where employees bring their own devices to work save an average of $1,000 per year per employee in service costs alone.”
  • Why does the fax machine keep chugging along? It’s a good question, but as Time magazine notes, “Why do businesses insist on fax when you can just scan, convert and email? You can do it to anything and send it anywhere at any time. Fax machines are relics of the Stone Age, yet they still persist around the world. Well, it turns out heavily-regulated industries — like banking, finance, law and health care — are one reason sales hold steady. And despite strong competition from cloud-sharing services like Dropbox and Google Drive, over 35 million all-in-one fax machines were shipped worldwide in 2011 and 2012, according to Gartner. And that doesn’t include single-function machines, which the firm stopped tracking years ago. “There are still plenty of fax machines out there,” Ken Weilerstein, a Gartner analyst, told Fortune. “Declining in this space doesn’t mean disappearing by a long shot.”
  • Getting a better handle on health care reform: It hasn’t been easy getting a fix on health care reform, especially now that some rules and regulations are being suspended for a year or more. The HBR blog does a good job of letting you know where things stand, and they add that, “The law has hit a delay, political heat is rising, businesses are in the middle, and many people are still just plain confused about what they have to do. … What happens next? Here are a few things to watch.”

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.