Employee engagement won’t work either

by Isabel Wu

Employee engagement should be among the top priorities for organisations, according to surveys conducted with HR professionals around the world.

  • More than half (62%) of organisations surveyed say employee engagement is their top HR priotity in 2013, according to research by law firm Speechly Bircham and King’s College London. (Employee Benefits)
  • Engagement/retention of the workforce (55%) is the top priority for organizations in 2013. (The CEB Global Talent Measurement Solutions)

The generally accepted definition of ’employee engagement’ is the degree of emotional commitment an employee has towards their job that influences their work performance and willingness to contribute to better outcomes for their team and their employer.  ‘Employee engagement’ is also variously defined in more tactical ways: as a strategy for improving workforce management; a measurement of employee satisfaction; a barometer of productivity, employee retention or performance; an incentive program; a talent management plan; employee rewards and benefits, and more.  One thing that all proponents of employee engagement agree on is that increased levels of employee engagement lead to tangible benefits for the employer.  Research consistently points to employee engagement as having a direct positive impact on sales, profitability, customer satisfaction, reduces accidents, disputes and sick days, and all achieved with less management intervention.  It is no wonder that HR has strapped its collective boots on to begin a new pilgrimage in search of this ideal.

However a lot does not make sense about this new sense of urgency to engage the workforce.  The profession of human resources grew out of ‘Personnel’ against the backdrop of theories and research that emerged in the 1970s on job satisfaction and its impact on worker productivity, most notably the work of Edwin A. Locke  (Range of Affect Theory, 1976) who defined job satisfaction as “a pleasurable or positive emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one’s job or job experiences”.  Management eager for the gains a more satisfied workforce promised, looked to earlier theories including Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1954), Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory (or Motivator-Hygiene Theory, 1959), and Theory X and Theory Y (Douglas MacGregor, 1960), for ways to practically apply the ideas the theories suggested.

In the 1980s the focus of human resources shifted to motivation.  Job satisfaction, it was argued, was not enough as a satisfied worker was not necessarily a better worker.  Employee motivation was as described by Robert Kreitner as “the psychological process that gives behavior purpose and direction” (Management, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986).  Alongside the growing emphasis on lean manufacturing and just-in-time management to drive down costs and increase efficiency, the management focus on targets cemented the practice of creating measures that employees could use to aim for higher performance, and this desire to improve results would be the basis of greater motivation.

In the 1990s the well-being of workers came to the fore.  Restructuring became a mainstream management practice and put paid to any doubts that job security existed.  With the wholesome embracing of valuing workers based on continuous and ever-widening measurements, and adding to this the mainstream adoption of mobile phones, the work environment was becoming increasingly long and intense.  Employers began to take note of work/life balance and recognise that stress and poor well-being were an anathema to productivity.  Attention to issues such as gender and race equality, flexible working condition, employee assistance programs, employer-supported health initiatives, ‘mental health’ breaks, even the term ‘work/life balance’ itself, took greater priority throughout the the 1990s.

By the beginning of the new century, twenty-plus years of efficiency drives had left little room for new ways to cut costs and lift profits.  Attention turned to savings from the costs of replacing employees.  This was not the reinstatement of the social contract that existed in the traditional job model, that is, the exchange of employee loyalty for a job for life, but a concentration on ‘retention and talent strategies’ to attract ‘better’ workers who would stay longer.  With few exceptions, job structures did not change; attracting and retaining talent was encouraged through incentives, greater flexibility for leave, education grants and increasing career development opportunities.  The savings from an employee that did not need to be replaced were often cited as being in the order of 30-50% of the annual salary of entry-level employees, 150% of middle level employees, and up to 400% for specialist or high level employees, once the costs of recruitment, training and lost productivity are taken into account.  Hiring errors could make these figures even higher.

So there has been no shortage of attention to finding the formulae that will deliver workers who are happier, cause employers less grief, and who willingly work harder to support their organisation’s ability to do more with less.  Not much has been written about employee engagement that adds anything new, other than perhaps providing more proof than ever that it is highly desirable.  It is impossible to see how the same ideas and the same approaches can suddenly give a different result just because the banner under which they are delivered has changed.  A review over the forty years of workforce practices since we first became concerned for employees’ job satisfaction shows remarkably little change.  In fact, with a quick search and replace action of the words ’employee engagement’ for ’employee motivation’ or ‘talent retention’ for instance, there is little to distinguish what this new awareness of employee engagement has achieved.

Without a doubt, there will be many who will huff and puff at what they will perceive as a disregard for the value and importance of people – in itself interesting that much of this will come from those who still refer to employees as ‘human resources’ and ‘human capital’.  The message from this blog is actually the polar opposite.

People are not naive, empty vessels that can be simply manipulated into certain attitudes and actions because an employer makes it sound attractive.  That organisations continue to think that ‘incentive’ and ‘performance’ are a rational exchange between two equal parties insults the employees who submit to what even the law refers to as a master/servant relationship.

Short of new ideas perhaps, the current buzz of activity is around data (even better if it can be big data).  The wave of offerings that will finally solve the conundrum of how to make people want to happily work harder for longer indicate that the missing piece is measurement.  The path to employee engagement, if the companies’ product claims are to be believed, is either through surveys or speedier delivery of performance data to employees.  It was harder to find exactly how all this new data, coming on top of data already available, will be used.  Will this data consider, for instance, the amount of talent that goes unused when jobs are too narrowly defined, or contributions that were not appreciated by systems too inflexible to accommodate different ideas, or problems that do not get fixed because too many managers can say ‘no’ and not enough will say ‘yes’?  How about data that considers the behavioural side of people whose work is a product of their emotional and social influences not just what is economically rational?  How about no data at all, just an organisation designed for people to excel in?  Surely no data is better than data used to dictate the next form of manipulation?

Employee engagement is important and it should be amongst the top priority for employers.  The attitude that it is an end game that needs to be won is not only wrong but will simply lead to yet another yet-to-be-labelled phase of workforce management focus when this one yields no more gains than its predecessors.  Employee engagement is a state the workers reach when the organisation as employer offers itself as a partner to those who have the values, skills, abilities, aptitude, knowledge and experience to contribute to the achievement of its goals and objectives, and the interactions and the progress made in the process are rewarding and satisfying.

Should there be any doubt that this article is not an exercise in cynicism but a real despair that the next forty years will be better, critics might like to read more about the CEB Global Talent Measurement Solution report referred to above.  The report was based on analyses of various organisational practices and an online survey of 592 HR professionals.   It found that the top HR priorities to emerge from the survey were:

  • Engagement/retention 55%  (of respondents)
  • Leadership development 52%
  • Workforce planning/analytics 43%
  • Performance management 49%
  • Training 42%

It went on to note that workforce analytics had moved up the agenda as a priority for HR, in line with other recent surveys, however:

  • Less than a quarter of respondents reported that their organisations have a clear understanding of workforce potential.
  • Less than half reported using objective data to make decisions about the workforce.
  • Less than half reported their organisations use talent data to drive business decisions.
  • Nearly 75% of respondents indicated that their organisations want to improve the way in which they measure talent.
  • Fewer than one in five respondents reported being satisfied with their systems’ ability to manage talent data.

The problem with having identified such poor response to managing workforce analytics, said the report, is that the battle that HR is engaged in with Marketing, Finance and Operations for the ownership of talent strategy is being fought and would be won on these grounds.  “The outcome will depend on which group owns the talent agenda, can provide the most meaningful data analytics to drive business decisions and can demonstrate that talent management truly impacts business outcomes.”  Because the “responsibility for talent strategy ultimately lies with the group that can demonstrate how managing talent impacts the bottom line”.

Understandably it is difficult to find time to properly engage with workers when there is a bigger war going on for survival and relevance.