Category Archives: employee engagement

The Ambiguity of Employee Engagement

Most HR leaders would be quick to say that employee engagement is a good thing; far fewer would actually be able to definitively define it.

That’s because there seem to be a zillion definitions out there. But many employers and consultancies continue to attempt to measure it, nonetheless.

Right Management is no different, but Douglas Sietsema, its talent management practice leader, (who I caught up with at the SHRM convention) mentions an interesting correlation.

One recent survey found that 65 percent of employees said their managers positively impacted their engagement, while 25 percent said managers had a negative impact and 10 percent said no impact.

What’s interesting, he notes, is that the numbers are pretty similar to another survey — this one measuring leadership.

In that survey, 60 percent said their companies provide some leadership, 22 percent said no leadership and 15 percent said consistent leadership.

“That’s where we started to see leadership, engagement — that correlation kind of thing.”

Leaders provide a sense of identity, of buy-in, he says.

“Leadership is what leads to engagement,” Sietsema says.

Military Cross-Cultural Issues

There’s a big push during the SHRM conference this year — rightfully so — on hiring veterans. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be winding down, there may be many military personnel looking for work in the civilian world. Should the economy ever truly recover, companies may even be able to hire some of them.

Should that happen, HR leaders should consider that the civilian leadership/organizational structure just doesn’t speak to many people trained by the military — most of whom were young when they entered the service and may not have held another real job beforehand.

And that lack of understanding leads to disillusionment and turnover, says Emily King, president of mymilitarytransition.com, who works with companies to help them better onboard vets.

“It’s like going to another country,” she says. “You don’t know the language.”

Part of the problem is that in the military, the mission is simple, straightforward and understood by everyone. In private organizations, it’s often just the opposite  — with the mission becoming more diffused as it filters down the ranks.

Vets have an abundance of positive abilities to share, she notes, including leadership and loyalty, but those traits are not free and have to be earned by the organization.

By the same token, it’s really the vets that need to change — to learn how to fit within the organization.

“Trying to push back against an entire organization doesn’t work,” King says.

Employees Sometimes Do Know Best

Before you stop reading this, thinking it’s some department-store promotional, hear me out.

The other day, I was in a Kohl’s Department Store madly searching for the right print in the right size in the little time I had. Taking my quest to the customer-service desk, thinking I’d probably be directed to another store (if I was lucky), I was directed instead to a telephone on the wall across from the desk. I picked it up and was immediately connected to a very friendly Kohl’s.com representative who quickly checked her “kiosk” of wares, found it and, while we were chatting, shipped it to my home, no shipping charge attached.

“This is our new service,” she told me. “If you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for in any of our stores, we can now direct you to this phone and you get it sent, no charge.” Misson over, headache abated, faith in your fellow humans temporarily restored. How simple.

“I’m impressed!” I told her. “I haven’t heard of this particular type of service before!”

“We came up with it ourselves, employees here at Kohl’s,” she said, sounding immensely proud. Some stores have installed computers in their customer-service departments, “but this just felt more personal; it made common sense,” she said. “We don’t think anyone else out there is doing this but us.”

In my old reporter mode, I immediately tried to track it down, thinking there might be an innovation case study for us in it somewhere. But the best James Barnes, Kohl’s’ manager of public relations, could give me was that the company is “very focused on implementing concepts that improve the customer experience and provide excellent customer service.” So, oh well, I guess I wasn’t going to get names — no what, why, where and when either.

I did come across this release, though, about a new book by the CEO of HCL Technologies, Vineet Nayar, pushing his notion that companies of the future need to shift their mind-sets and start relying on the good ideas of their employees when it comes to customer service, or fail. His book, Employees First, talks about solving much harder, more strategic problems around customer satisfaction by giving up the age-old notion that C-suiters and line leaders are where your solutions lie.

“Nayar argues,” the release says, “that the best way for companies to meet their customers’ needs is to stop making customers their top priority. Instead, companies should shift their focus to empowering employees to solve customer problems — in part by making management accountable to the employees who are the real creators of value.”

In Nayar’s own words: “Perhaps the biggest surprise for readers of my book will be that Western-style companies can achieve even greater success by making their approach to business more democratic. Companies with traditional top-down, pyramid-like hierarchies with rigid reporting structures make it very difficult for critical competitive information, garnered on the front line, to flow uphill to the C-suite, where strategic business decisions have traditionally been made.”

Kohl’s might be onto something here. Its employees certainly seem to be.

BP’s ‘Human Face’

BP seems to have a regular spot on the front page of the New York Times lately, thanks to the Gulf of Mexico disaster. In today’s edition, two front-page stories touch on BP and the oil leak, including one focused primarily on the verbal missteps of BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward.

Nicely titled “Another Torrent BP Works to Stem: Its CEO,” the story dissects some of the more memorable “gaffes” from Hayward, including one in which he said the spill is not going to cause big problems because the gulf “is a very big ocean” and “You know, I’d like my life back.” Responding to the latter, Hayward apologized to the families of the 11 men who died on the rig.

The story, for the most part, explores how Hayward’s comments have turned into something of a public-relations fiasco for BP. But I have to also believe they haven’t been much of a motivator for those BP employees (and contractors) who now face the monumental task of fixing the leak. Would imagine they’d be a lot better off were they to have a CEO at the helm who managed to not make news himself.

Ironically, just about the same time BP started making headlines, John Hofmeister’s book, Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider, arrived in the mail. Hofmeister is one of the handful of HR leaders to be promoted to president of a major corporation, in this case Shell Oil Co. (2005-2008). Perhaps, had Hofmeister’s book come out in the fall, BP’s latest fiasco (remember, BP was hit just last October with the largest OSHA fine ever) might have received a paragraph or two in Hofmeister’s book, which explores the oil industry’s image-management problems.

“Best practices doesn’t just mean taking credit for the positive steps the industry has taken; it also requires public exposure by top executives, a human face on a complex organization, consumer empathy and engagement, obvious and intentional,” Hofmeister writes. “Twenty-first-century engagement demands a commitment to transparency.”

OK, I guess you can say Hayward is showing BP’s “human face.” But I suspect that’s not the kind of “human face” Hofmeister is referring to in his book. Nor is it the kind of face that’s going to inspire BP’s engineers to come up with a solution that works.

Google Not Sold on Employee Engagement

For an upcoming feature story in our July issue, I’m interviewing Google’s Prasad Setty, its director of people analytics and compensation. Setty and his boss, Google CHRO Laszlo Bock, both feel that the concept of employee engagement is of limited use, to say the least. “Engagement is one of those nebulous concepts that appeal to HR people but are very tough to get across to business people,” Setty told me.

Here’s what Bock had to say: “It’s impossible to define what ‘engagement’ means: Does it mean I like my work, my colleagues, my manager? Does it mean I live only for work? It’s such a general term.”

Setty and Bock both feel that focusing on employee engagement simply adds an unnecessary step to getting at what Google’s line managers and business leaders really care about: retention and innovation. That is, are the people that the company needs to keep planning on sticking around and are they being creative and innovative in their jobs?

At Google, Setty oversees Google’s employee survey, called “Googlegeist,” that’s designed to get the answers to those two questions. Focusing on engagement would simply be a waste of time, they say.

“You have to explain to managers why engagement matters–that there’s a link between engagement and productivity,” said Setty. “So why not just measure retention and productivity directly?”

I find Google’s stance noteworthy, especially considering the emphasis that the HR vendor community has placed on employee engagement within the last few years. You can’t throw a stick at an HR convention without hitting a consultant who wants to tell you all about his firm’s employee engagement tools, or how his product or service will ramp up your company’s employee engagement. Is it simply yet another HR trend that will come and go? If you consider Google a trendsetter, then the answer’s definitely yes.

Workers are Wearing Your Health on Their Sleeves

Probably pretty intuitive, but definitive nonetheless. A new study from Gallup-Healthways shows people working for employers that are in a hiring mode tend to have brighter outlooks on their own personal lives than those working for companies in the midst of layoffs.

No duh, right? Fair enough. But when you consider that as many as two-thirds (68 percent) of the 20,000 employed adults polled who were working at growing companies said they were thriving in their personal lives versus less than half (49 percent) working at downsizing organizations, it does cause pause to wonder: Is there something more HR can and should be doing during layoffs to help the survivors stave off depression? Translated: absence, loss of productivity, possible long-term disability?? (The ratings, by the way, were based on the Cantril Scale, which many organizations use to determine individual well-being.)

Granted, there’s not a whole lot HR leaders can do with this except maybe drum up even more satisfaction detectors and morale boosters than you already have in place to counter the layoff-survivor blues — or get some going if you have nothing at this point.

But consider this too: Even the simple fact that a reorganizing company is spending time, energy and money to ensure the survivors don’t go into emotional tailspins carries the subliminal message that things there can’t be that bad. Right?

Total Rewards with a Twist of Customization

Two studies released Monday at the WorldatWork’s Total Reward 2010 Conference in Dallas, Texas shed light on what employers might want to do differently as they begin to staff up again.

During a session on the conference’s opening day, researchers from Texas A&M University shared the findings of a recent study of accounting students that found the influence of particular rewards and benefits frequently depended on the outcomes being sought (i.e. attraction, motivation or retention). The study, “The Relative Influence of Total Rewards Elements on Attraction, Motivation and Retention,” found that career development was especially important to students pursuing a career in accounting. Meanwhile, work/life benefits and performance recognition were much more important to those who ended up employed at one of the Big Four account firms for several months. (Response rates of the different groups studied over the several year period ranged from 159 to 232.)

Similarly, a study entitled “Beyond Compensation: How Employees Prioritize Total Rewards at Various Life Stages” found that respondents valued different rewards at different stages of their lives, with development significantly more important for employees under 40 and benefits much more important to breadwinners, especially female breadwinners. (The study of 678 adults was conducted by Next Generation Consulting and Dieringer Research Group.)

Most HR leaders aren’t going to be terribly surprised by the studies’ conclusions. Indeed, both seem to be in line with the findings of earlier research projects. But if there continues to be any doubting Thomases out there who still think they can get away with a one-size-fits-all approach to total rewards—and one suspects there are—then perhaps these findings will give them reason to pause and reconsider.

Rebecca Ryan, CEO of Next Generation Consulting, suggested to attendees that employers might be well served by stealing a lesson from Starbucks’ playbook and the way it was able to build its business by customizing coffee and latte drinks—as in “I’ll have a triple decaf Grande Latte with skim”—when it comes to designing their total-reward programs.

Meanwhile, Mercer Senior Partner Steve Gross is scheduled to share the findings of a third survey on Tuesday that found companies continue to invest in their total-reward programs during the economic downturn and modify the elements of “total rewards.”

The study revealed that 50 percent of the 741 responding multinational companies responding consider “work-life initiatives” a staple of total rewards, while four in 10 reported they either enhanced or added wellness programs during the past 12 months.

All three studies were sponsored by WorldatWork. The Total Rewards 2010 Conference runs through this Wednesday and is expected to attract around 1,500 attendees.