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Is Employee Engagement Dead?

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Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc., on January 22, 2016

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Mark Twain

Amid all the buzz about employee engagement programs, a growing contingent wants to throw them out. Rodd Wagner, in Forbes last year, predicted The End of Employee Engagement, calling it a “check the box exercise” at many firms. Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte, declares that engagement programs have failed us and it’s time for organizations to become “irresistible.” Both authors condemn annual engagement surveys. Wagner’s beef is that they aren’t confidential, executives and managers “game” them and employees are afraid to answer them honestly. Bersin says they lack “modern, actionable solutions.”

That’s a lot to expect of any survey, let alone one designed to be brief, so that employees will actually complete it. But what troubles me more is the feeling that we have been here before—ten years ago, when employee satisfaction was in the cross-hairs. The surveys were meaningless. “Satisfaction” and “happiness” were passé. Businesses needed employees who were committed, enthusiastic and passionate. The new goal was “engaged,” an elevated state of being that would propel organizations to unprecedented levels of performance.

Now engagement is under attack and a host of consultants and bloggers are rushing in to suggest alternatives, as if a different kind of survey or a new label for our “ideal” workforce will solve the problem. It won’t. Like the divorcee who blames her three ex-husbands, we fail to see that the problem is us—HR and the business leaders that allow HR to dither instead of acquiring vital skills. To quote Bersin again, HR still lacks people “who can translate a ‘finding’ into a program or solution that drives business change.”

That’s the point we are missing about engagement surveys: They are a source of findings and directional insights, not a comprehensive set of solutions. Gallup, the engagement pioneer, said early on that there were three keys to increasing engagement:

…measuring employee engagement, conducting impact planning based on the measurement results, and implementing changes based on the impact planning—then repeating the process to sustain or further increase engagement levels.

In other words, managers and employees were expected to work together to interpret survey results and develop plans to address deficiencies. They were meant to implement those plans and revisit them, until they got it right. Too often, we have skipped those steps. Why is that? At least part of the answer is that we haven’t developed the analytics skill set that Bersin describes as “business understanding, consulting skills, data visualization, data management, statistics, and executive presence.”

Case in point: A manufacturing client I met with last week blamed noncompetitive compensation for a turnover rate that has doubled in the past eighteen months. Knowing that turnover is never just about compensation, I shifted the conversation to the factors of engagement, but the VP of HR shut me down. A recent engagement survey showed that 90 percent of their employees were engaged and 85 percent intended to stay with the company for the next several years. Sensing my doubt, the VP sent me the survey report with a note that said, “See for yourself.”

On the surface, the results did look good. A page of summary statistics showed high engagement, year-to-year improvements and favorable comparisons to industry norms. However, in the charts that followed, by line of business, department and job group, other story lines emerged—if one knew what to look for. In addition, those “engaged” workers provided nearly 100 pages of write-in comments. They had a lot to say, and very little was about compensation. Their concerns involved management honesty and approachability, the “hostile” work environment, the lack of feedback and direction, a desire for job enrichment and flexible scheduling, and pleas for more staff, better equipment and improved technology.

It was true that the consultant’s report lacked specific insights or recommendations. However, it provided plenty of data. This organization just didn’t know what to do with it. Instead, they announced their lofty engagement rate with bold statements that their program was working, even though they—and their workforce—had to have known better.

All this to say, don’t blame engagement programs for the lack of improvement in worker attitudes around the globe. Clearly, annual surveys have their faults, but simply replacing them with real-time tools like pulse surveys won’t fix the problem, because it all boils down to data: Data that needs to be analyzed, interpreted and combined with other HR information such as onboarding and exit surveys, recruiting data, learning data and performance data—all of which needs to be integrated with customer, business and industry data, in order to uncover patterns, predict trends and solve business problems.

That’s a tall order, and so far, we haven’t had the heart for it, we haven’t had the skills for it, we haven’t made the time for it and we haven’t invested in it—either enough dollars or the right resources. In short, we have treated engagement like any other human resources program and that’s a mistake. It’s time to ante up, skill up and harness the potential of the biggest weapon we have in our strategic arsenal. Whether we label it satisfaction, engagement or irresistibility is beside the point, unless we call it what it is: a business priority.

 

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Author: jeanherreman

I'm a freelance Human Resources consultant and blogger, a published short story writer, and an aspiring author of fiction I call "literary mysteries."

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