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Employee Engagement is poor – who is responsible?

Let’s start with some data from Gallup’s Dec 2016 publication “State of the American Workplace”:

The American workforce has more than 100 million full-time employees. One-third of those employees are what Gallup calls engaged at work. They love their jobs and make their organization and America better every day. At the other end, 16% of employees are actively disengaged — they are miserable in the workplace and destroy what the most engaged employees build. The remaining 51% of employees are not engaged — they’re just there. 

The corresponding number for Western Europe is even more grim – only 10% are engaged! [Gallup’s 2017 “State of the Global Workplace”] 

‘So, what’, you might say. Markets seem healthy, unemployment continues to decrease and there seems to be little concern about employee engagement in the media.

Underneath the corporate covers the trends are not so positive for employers. 41% of millennials, now the biggest segment of the workforce, expect to be in their current job for two years or less. This indicates a significant change in the projected rate of attrition when compared to 17% of Gen X and 10% of Boomers [Job Applicator Center]. At a conservative cost of $30-50K to replace an individual this will have an increasingly substantial impact on corporate profitability.

Companies indicated they are looking to address employee engagement – 88% of businesses planned to improve employee engagement in 2017 (Virgin Pulse). So, can we expect a substantial rise in Employee Engagement? In my consulting career I have encountered such programs. The responsibility for the change tends to reside in HR and they fight an uphill battle from the outset. Being classed as “internal” investments – as opposed to “customer facing” – they are usually of lower priority and inadequately funded. However, there is an even bigger obstacle to success; the necessary change in the priorities of executive leadership. Employee Engagement will not substantially improve over the long-term until employees become at least as important as customers to the leaders at the pinnacle of an organization.  

Hyperbole? No. I think this is likely an understatement! Employees, minimally, want to be respected, to be stimulated, and experience different roles in a career. We know a line manager can have the biggest impact – positive or negative – on an individual’s career, indicating up to two thirds of managers are not providing the desired support to their teams but are still progressing in their own careers. To truly address employee engagement, the behaviors to be embraced need to start at the top of the organization: From the CEO/BU lead down to her direct reports, down to theirs, and so on. HR should be involved in the execution of this change but must have visible and long-term, executive support.

So how should such a program be initiated? Jim Collins, in “Good to Great “, stated humility to be the foundational virtue found in the CEOs of great companies. If “humility is not thinking less of oneself but is thinking of one self, less” (C.S. Lewis) the actionable implication is one should think of others, more! Repeat – “one should think of others more”. This is the foundation for an Employee Engagement improvement program. Executive leadership must ask themselves “am I thinking of my employees enough and do they know that I care? After all, I am responsible for employee engagement”. 

Part 2 of this article will address the components of such an Employee Engagement improvement program.

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