Why Your Employee Engagement Tactics are Destined to Fail

engagement failure

Organizational leaders and HR professionals love tossing around the word engagement. They’re quite fond of saying things like “we need to increase our employee engagement” or “let’s do an annual survey!” or “what’s the budget for employee engagement activities?” (more on that later). We can’t fault them; the engagement industry is a bajillion dollar cottage industry loaded with HR tech solution providers, pundits and ‘thought leaders.’

Over the years however when I’ve asked leaders/HR folks “what specifically do you mean when you say these things?” they’ve usually been unable to provide an answer. (Hint: use of buzzwords does not equal strategy and successfully tossing a word-salad does not improve outcomes).

To avoid being doomed to failure, here are five issues to tackle before launching the next-great-initiative:

Issue 1: You lack a definition of “engagement”

Part of the reason is there is no common definition of engagement; it will, in fact, vary from company to company. At some organizations it means emotional commitment, It may refer to employees who care about both their own work performance and the organization. It may mean discretionary effort; employees who go-the-extra-mile. It may be as simple as “engagement at Acme Corporation means that our employees give a shit.”

Issue 2: You haven’t defined the “why”

Saying we have a focus on increasing engagement (which most of us haven’t even defined as listed above!) sounds sexy. For HR people it’s way more fun to talk about engagement as opposed to EEOC claims or employee benefits. Often missing though is the “why” – and again, this will be unique and specific to an organization.

Why is the organization focusing on this? Is it to create a better work environment? Promote trust? Increase collaboration? Drive revenue? Cut costs? It’s critical to articulate the purpose in order to fully determine if there are any realized results from the time and effort put forth.

Issue 3: You have no means/methods to measure and monitor

If you’re like lots of other organizations you run an annual survey, gather a lot of data points, slice-and-dice it (“tsk tsk; they sure have some low engagement in the warehouse!”), craft action plans, and assign a bunch of goals to Department leaders. You have monthly (maybe quarterly) meetings, talk about what activities have happened or programs have been implemented and hope and pray that 12 months from now you’ve moved the needle in an upward direction.

But are you measuring the right things? Are you reviewing the data appropriately and comparing apples to apples? Is, for example, engagement so low in the warehouse because the turnover for those jobs is 70%? What will happen next year, come survey time, when 2/3’s of the employees being surveyed are brand new?

Issue 4: You really don’t want to do the hard work

Here comes the hard part – fixing the problems. What actually has to be done to achieve engagement (however you’ve defined it) nirvana? You’ve asked the right questions (ideally) and gotten answers from employees…so now what are you going to do about it? I worked with an organization with very low (abysmal actually) pay and benefits; compensation was most assuredly, at that company, a primary driver of poor engagement.

Survey after survey, year after year, the same responses were loud and clear: “I work here because it’s close to home but I can’t survive much longer on this low pay. I just want to come in and get through my shift.”  Yet, even though this was number 1 (year after year) there was no intent to do the hard work to fix it.

Rather, as is quite common, the leaders and corporate HR team decided the answer was more “stuff and fluff.” They upped the $$ in the “engagement” budget (literally a line item in the HR Department budget) in order to purchase t-shirts in March, increase the food offerings at the annual picnic in June, and purchase fancy service award pins. Stuff and fluff.

Issue 5: You’ve decided it’s an HR issue

While the HR team may be the architects of the over-all initiatives and planning, they don’t “own” engagement. They aren’t solely responsible for improving engagement scores. (Would you believe I’ve spoken with HR Leaders who have “increase engagement scores by xx% year-over-year” as part of their performance/bonus plan while none of the managers/executives do? That’s absurd).

Any work (and it might very well be hard work) is owned across the organization with the need to do some heavy lifting firmly in the domain of managers/supervisors. As my very wise friend Paul Hebert has said “most engagement problems exist in the three feet of air between an employee and their manager.”

Train and involve your managers and then hold them accountable; they will make or break any efforts at improvement. This is not an HR program; this belongs to everyone.

Checklist for success

  1. Define engagement for your company
  2. Define why engagement is important
  3. Measure and monitor
  4. Do the hard work
  5. Remember: managers matter

You can do it!

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Chaos in a Talent System

chaos

Recently, while lazily channel surfing, I watched bits and pieces of Jurassic Park for (approximately) the 372nd time. Fortunately for me they were the snippets with lots and lots of Dr. Ian Malcom action (and I think we can all agree that Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcom, not the tribe of velociraptors, is the actual star of this movie).

Ian (we’re on a first name basis) is the voice of caution in the film. As a mathematician who specializes in the branch of mathematics knows as “chaos theory” he seeks to inform the others (and the audience) how minor events can lead to unexpected consequences. As he explains:  

“It simply deals with predictability in complex systems. The shorthand

is the butterfly effect, the butterfly flaps its wings in Central Park,

you get rain in central Asia.”

In other words, understanding chaos theory means understanding that systems that appear straightforward and deterministic can still exhibit highly complicated and seemingly random long-term behavior. Something we often forget about in our organizations; especially in our talent (HR) system.

The “talent system” as I’m referring to it, means all the aspects of the employment experience that fall under the bailiwick of the HR Department. From candidate outreach to off-boarding. From work technology usage to human interaction. From messaging to written policies to the nebulousness of organizational culture. And a system, quite simply, is a collection of parts and subsystems that are highly integrated to further the achievement of an end goal. Within any system there are various inputs and numerous processes and there are also, as we know, forces (both internal and external) potentially bringing friction.

Our responsibility, as the architects or caregivers of any given component of a talent system, is to be cognizant of the fact that chaos exists; it’s neither random nor wholly arbitrary. Within any system, even when there appears to be confusion and unpredictability, there is an underlying order. There’s even a name for it within the field of strategic management: complexity theory involves the use of the study of complexity systems in order to examine uncertainty to find understanding about how organizations adapt – particularly during times of change driven by micro-events or a coaction of events.

And talent systems, even when seemingly straightforward and modeled on well-defined processes, are forever at the mercy of chaos. The most linear action is not only inter-connected, but is also at the continual mercy of the flapping of butterfly wings:

  • The solidly built employer brand and messaging to candidates can be disturbed and thrown off course during the course of the interview process once the candidate interacts with people (ineffective hiring managers), processes (so many steps… including assessments, multiple interviews and post-offer hoops-through-which-to-jump), and systems (the employment application that takes 45 minutes to complete including resume upload and the answering of essay questions)
  • The fun, lively and engaging onboarding, effectively facilitated by an effervescent HR staff member, becomes but a distant memory once the newly hired employee is working on their team and provided with contradictory information from their manager (“well yes you’ve been front-loaded with 3 weeks of PTO for the year but I won’t be able to approve any time off until you’re here for at least 6 months”)

The talent system…can collapse.

Predictable? Yes. If you’re paying attention these sorts of system disruptions are both foreseeable and changeable. Then it’s time to figure out WHY …. and focus on improvement.

Because the butterfly will always be flapping its wings.  

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I’m Hesitant to Ask, But…

obstacles

Over my years as an HR practitioner, in a fair number of organizations, I had employees stroll into the HR Department and start a conversation with “I’m not sure if you can get this for me, but…”

This phrase, or some variation, has often been the preface to a request for a piece of equipment or some business item necessary for the adequate performance of everyday tasks and duties: 

  • A chair without a broken leg
  • A new pair of safety goggles
  • Pens
  • A paper shredder that could handle more than 3 sheets of paper at a time (as the close-to-tears Office Clerk referenced 6 banker boxes of records she needed to shred)

Now ordering office supplies and work tools for employees is not a resume-building highlight that many fresh-faced HR professionals envision when they embark upon their HR career. (Although it is worth noting that in many small/mid-sized businesses it often falls upon the HR staff to stock the supply cabinet along with the office kitchen).

What’s more note-worthy here is when employees in larger organizations (those with a purchasing manager, a facilities team, and department leaders with budgets and company credit cards) go to HR as a last resort in order to acquire the most basic items to adequately perform their job in a safe manner.

Is it because the manager is not paying attention to the work environment in which employees are toiling? Perhaps the manager is telling staff members there’s no budget to update equipment until (if it’s approved) 7 months from now.? Or maybe, as is common, there are numerous hoops to jump through – and 5 signatures required – to place an order for tools and equipment.

So employees do the best they can with the items at hand. Sometimes with disastrous results. “I didn’t think I could ask for…”

  • A new can opener for the office lunch room (replacement cost to company = $1.00 from the Dollar General located next door). In the absence of a can opener and, apparently in her eagerness to adequately caffeinate her office mates, Bridget felt it would be perfectly A-OK to use a butcher knife to open a can of coffee. The knife (hello Captain Obvious) slipped, she sliced her hand open, and Bridget ended up taking a delightful trip to the ER where she received stitches, pain medication, and, perhaps, a lollipop.
  • A 2-drawer filing cabinet to replace the cabinet purchased in 1989 (replacement cost to company = $49.95 at the local office supply store). The 1989 relic had jagged metal edges running along the tops of the drawers that had not closed in a functional manner for 20+ years. Ellen cut her hand while attempting to close a drawer and bled all over the A/P files.
  • A new set of protective coveralls (replacement cost to company = $7.00 in the company supply shop). Because Karl did not wear appropriate protective gear (i.e. without holes and with workable elastic bands at wrists and ankles) he became sensitized to the chemicals in the environment, developed an allergy (and an absolutely disgusting rash), was moved to permanent partial disability status, and lost his job.  Note:  Karl was fully authorized to pop in to the supply shop – every day – and get a new set of coveralls.

Now these 3 situations were obviously safety issues which, with hindsight and information in hand, led to various operational improvements – and some performance discussions with assorted shift supervisors/managers/HSE staff on the “coverall” one.

But there’s a lesson here for HR practitioners about paying attention to the basic operational efficiencies (or inefficiencies as the case may be) in one’s organization. One of our responsibilities, I strongly believe, is to remove obstacles and roadblocks that get in the way of employees doing their best work.

Sometimes an employee may pop into the HR office or send an email with a question. At other times, while wandering the building or having conversations with people in other parts of the business, HR staff will hear stories or comments that may, seemingly, have nothing to do with HR’s responsibilities (“What a pain in the ass; I’ve been waiting over a month for my expense reimbursement!”).

But you know what? That’s a golden opportunity for HR folks to wield their internal influence and raise an issue, work to resolve the problem, and remove the obstacle that’s negatively impacting the employees’ work experience.

And think about it…

If Joe in the Mail room is afraid to ask for a new stamp-licking squeegee bottle so he can get the mail out on time, do you seriously think he’s going to report fraud, harassment, or any of the other things we tell him to bring to our attention?

So what’s the real deal at your company?  I’m hesitant to ask, but…

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You Can’t Put a Sweater on a Jellyfish

culture

A local friend, a hiring manager at her company, recently expressed frustration with the state of hiring in her organization.

“We get plenty of applicants,” she said. “Obviously some are better than others but we really have no problem with quantity and are able to hire pretty easily. Plus we’ve got decent benefits,” she added, “and above average pay.”

“But why,“ she wondered out loud, “do we lose so many new employees before they hit the 3 month mark? I’m super clear on job expectations and tell them WHAT they’ll work on and HOW they’ll spend their day. So why are they leaving?”  

(side note: she’s quite sincere and most assuredly not one who laments “no one wants to work anymore!” in which case I would have pointed out that our state’s unemployment rate is at its lowest point since March 2008).

So why don’t people last beyond the 3/6/12 month timeframe? (And yes; we could unpack this forever and come up with numerous reasons. I’m quite partial to this simple nugget BTW).  But here’s what I think is one of the primary reasons for poor retention in those critical early stages:

Companies hire for the culture they want…NOT for the culture they have.

Nutshell.

Because a fair number of organizations, in the holy name of employer branding, share glossy manufactured versions of reality. They check all the boxes: creating great content, shooting Day in the Life videos, and having employees write reviews on their webpage. Good on them for having the right intent; candidates want to see that stuff since it’s better than 99% of the HR-developed job postings on the average company’s website (bullet points ad nauseum!!). But those videos – those “employee testimonials” – those employee authored blog posts – are merely ethereal pixie dust. 

  • No HR leader or recruiter is posting videos of the dudes back in the warehouse sweating in 100-degree heat with no Gatorade (only water!) and one 10-minute break every 2 hours.
  • No one asks Joyce in Accounts Payable (who has toiled for the company for 28 years and is bitter, frustrated, and pissed off because her salary capped out 6 years ago) to write a “testimonial” for the company career page.
  • And the Call Center Reps who churn and burn and cycle in and out within 30 days of hire? Do you think they’re going to make it onto the “Employer Branding Reel” that the Head of TA showcases at 4 Recruiting Conferences next year?

Of course not.

We want to hide our warts. So we take snapshots of parties and balloons and smiling, laughing, dancing employees. We’re certainly not going to post a picture of Bob in Accounting, forlornly cradling his head in his hands, at end-of-month close as he is once again waiting for the A/P team to get their act together.

Instead we share visions of the future – the hoped-for-state of endless sunshine and remote work (for those who want it) and ping pong tables on every floor (for those who crave coming to the office) and groups of employees volunteering at Habitat for Humanity.

“We have to get the right people on board to make that shift…to get us there,” we tell ourselves.  

“We know we’ll be able to innovate once we get the right people on board.”

“We intend to be better communicators!” (sotto voce: although, of course, we know we suck at it today).

We do care about our employees!” (well the HR policies are a bit rigid and draconian but we intend to change that once we hire the right people!)  

So we hire for our future state and bring on the people we think will plant the seeds for what we hope to become. The super innovator! The stellar communicator! The go-getter!  The light-the-world-on-fire manager with bold new ideas!

Then they come to work in the real culture. And leave at the 3-month mark.

Once again we’ve tried, too hard, to wrangle our jellyfish into a sweater.

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The Break-Up: Managing Employee Departures

employee departures

The way in which an employee is treated when departing your company is just as important as how you handled the process when they joined.

Remember that intoxicating time? You wooed and courted and promised them the moon. You shared your hobbies (“look at all our ‘employee engagement activities!!’”) and pet peeves (“please read our HR policies”). And even though your out-of-date and heavily photoshopped profile picture (“branding”) didn’t resemble reality (“actual culture”) in any way, you managed to convince them to come aboard.

But now they’ve decided to leave. The romance has soured or a more attractive suitor has arrived and lured them away. When an employee tells you “It’s not you – it’s me” (even though it may, in fact, be you) there are a few situations to avoid as you work through the break-up.

The Bloodletting

Asking an employee to leave immediately upon resignation is at the top of the list for inane moves. Granted, this may seem sensible for a salesperson who’s not going to be filling the pipeline with new leads if he’s walking out the door in 2 weeks, but what’s the point of tossing Carol in Accounting out the door the moment she gives notice?  Yet there are companies who apparently assume all resigning employees are going to gather all the corporate intel they can and sell it to the highest bidder. I’ve joined organizations where this was such the norm -and expectation – that resigning employees who had to work out a 2 week notice were actually offended they weren’t asked to depart forthwith.

The Shunning

Bob tenders his resignation and is immediately a pariah. He’s no longer invited to meetings and his name disappears from email groups. He can probably live with all of this but it pains him just a bit when his boss, the division director and, so it seems, the entire leadership team don’t even offer greetings in the hallway. One step removed from Hester Prynne. Poor Bob.

The Cortege

For those working on-site, a resignation (yes, even a voluntary one – see “The Bloodletting”) may result in a Security Guard (or HR staffer) materializing in one’s office door with a box. The box is for packing up photos of kids and assorted office knick-knacks (“Ma’am – is that YOUR coffee mug or does it belong to the company?”).  The Guard is the accompanying attendant for the mournful procession out-of-the-building while everyone in the building furtively avoids eye contact.

The Farewell Party

This is nice, right?  Sally gets treated to cake and punch and her manager gives her a gift card to Outback Steakhouse after he makes a speech about all her contributions and how she was an integral part of the team’s success. Her co-workers sign a card (funny and slightly ribald because Sally has a sense of humor) and wish her the best of luck. There are hugs all around with promises to stay in touch and get together for the occasional lunch or happy hour. But Sally feels a bit sad as she wonders “why didn’t they say these things and treat me this way during the 4 years I worked here?  If I knew this is how everyone felt I might not have looked for another job…”

Break-ups are hard; they tear off a little bit of your heart. And when an employee decides to move on and enter a relationship with someone else you may not be ready to say “I’ll always love you.”

But you can surely tell them “I hope we can still be friends.”

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