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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My HR “Customer” Experience

employee experience

I recently started a new job (sort of; my company was acquired) and, for the first time in my working career, I am NOT a member of the HR staff.

I don’t have to worry about learning the employee benefit offerings inside-out. I’m not wondering when I’m going to have to conduct my first employee investigation. (note: at a previous gig I had to kick-off a Sexual Harassment investigation at 1 PM on Day One of my employment tenure. #GoodTimes). I’m not worried about expeditiously memorizing every policy in the Employee Handbook. (confession: I’ve been feeling so carefree that I didn’t even read the Employee Handbook, in its entirety, until several weeks after my start date!)

This atypical experience has been simultaneously rejuvenating and surreal.

I don’t have to, as a new hire, observe my HR team to discern how cultural norms, procedures, and historical precedents dictate the inner workings of people operations. I’m not privy to the decision-making that has informed “why” the company has XX number of holidays or “how” employees are socialized and acclimated to the organization.

I am, instead, merely a willing recipient of HR’s services. I’m a new vessel, fresh off the OnBoarding Assembly Line, into which the People & Culture team is pouring information and assistance. I dutifully open all their emails, follow their directions immediately (“it’s time to enroll in your benefits!”), and attend every informational session and meeting whether mandatory or not. I’m fully immersed (I love this stuff!) into the values and culture and community aspects;I was posting on a Yammer community by day 3.

I think, if I do say so myself, I’m a great HR customer.

And it’s really confirmed something I’ve long believed – every HR professional, preferably at an early stage of their career (unlike me), needs to join a company in a non-HR role. When I think about peers and friends who work in HR I realize that the vast majority have always worked in human resources. Lots of them came out of school, landed a gig in HR, and have never gotten off the treadmill.

I get it. It’s a profession. And we’ve battled – seemingly for decades – for HR to be acknowledged as a profession. We’ve grown our HR careers by switching back-and-forth from generalist to specialist roles or moving up the ladder/criss-crossing the lattice from Coordinator to HRBP to Director to VP. There are some (many?) who say “HR is my calling; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” There are others who are content, comfortable and possess a soupcon of complacency (I get that too!) and don’t want to try something else.

But…

… how can we, the individuals in charge of designing and nurturing the environment for employees to be successful, truly understand the “employee experience” if we’ve never…well…EXPERIENCED “work” as an employee?

How many HR professionals have ever:

  • been subjected to their own HR-devised Attendance Point Policy?
  • had to navigate Benefit Enrollment without fully understanding the difference between co-pay and co-insurance?
  • held off on making plans as they’ve wondered if the company will close early on December 24th, like they have for the last decade, because HR refuses to memorialize it as an official “company holiday” (even though it sure seems to be one).
  • tried to figure out WHAT, exactly, “performance calibration” means and HOW in the world it seems to be the only explanation provided when annual performance increases are announced?
  • wondered how transfers and promotions happen for others yet they never seem to even get an interview (or a response) when applying for an internal move?

It’s the quintessential dictum isn’t it? “Put yourself in their shoes.”

Personally, I think I look quite styling in my new pair of pumps loafers flip flops.  

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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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Death to Shorthand

shorthand

“I hate dealing with Joe; he never remembers anything I tell him.” (“Oh… you didn’t know that Joe has hearing loss in his left ear?”)

“Jane always looks so mad; she’s just unpleasant to deal with.” (“I guess you hadn’t heard; Jane’s husband has terminal cancer.”)

“Carmen is pretty rude.  Do you know she’s the only team member who didn’t come to the baby shower the team hosted for me?” (“Maybe you didn’t know this but Carmen had a miscarriage last year; she finds it difficult to attend baby showers.”)

**********

Ah yes.  Who among us doesn’t jump to conclusions based on an interaction (or several) with another person?  We use mental shorthand to quickly categorize someone’s behavior and then we toss Joe, Jane and Carmen into one of the filing cabinets in our brain that we’ve labeled –“the difficult one” – the unfriendly one” – “the bitch.”  Task completed, they’re neatly labeled, and we decide that’s all we need to know about them. 

But in the workplace further problems arise when we neglect to review and examine those categorizations down the road. When a manager, co-worker or (heaven forbid) an HR professional keeps an employee in one of those file drawers and doesn’t attempt to gather more data or develop greater understanding.

I’ve known people who’ve worked together for over a decade who still rely on initial cataloging (and assumptions) from 2010. This is disappointing amongst peers but downright damaging and destructive when it occurs with managers or HR practitioners. (“Oh; I’m not interested in Susie for this internal opening. I interviewed her when she applied 3 years ago and she wasn’t a fit.”)

Shorthand is a dying skill.  Mental shorthand needs to follow.

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