Employee Engagement – Why it fails, Is it mere words and not adequately effective?

Our Corporate world today is strewn with examples of “Employee Engagement” initiatives.  Irrespective of the size of corporate organization, each one is focused on chalking out and implementing Employee Engagement initiatives to involve employees, create the image of an employee friendly organization and try and retain the best employees and maintain high performing teams.  In spite of all the time and effort and money spent on these initiatives, data from the surveys and opinion from experts from the HR domain show a sense of disengagement amongst the employees.

The term Employee Engagement invariably brings to mind the term – encouragement.  Engagement is primarily about nurturing the talents and skill, providing opportunities, appreciating good work, recognizing honest effort and guide and steer them along to do well when they falter, basically imparting courage and will to keep going to reach their goal.  Through all this, the motivated employee feels more involved, appreciated and can appreciate the organization better, a sense of loyalty grows and retention happens.  As mentioned by John C Maxwell – A leader should remember that everyone needs encouragement.

An organization is what its people are, top down. If the leaders truly believe in the philosophy of nurturing and investing in employee and takes personal effort and initiative, it works well.  If the leader can step away from the titles and positions to put himself in the shoes of the employee, he can perhaps develop an effective strategy. Since leadership is all about influencing the team, it has to work like a magic wand.  It has to cast a spell to make the employees energized and fall in love with the organization, the vision, the culture.

According to a Gartner article on Employee Value proposition – employees perceive the value employees gain by working in an organization, across five attributes:

  • Opportunity 

    This includes career and development opportunities and organization growth rate.

  • People

    This includes manager quality, co-worker quality, senior leadership reputation and camaraderie.

  • Organization 

    This includes market position, product/service quality and social responsibility

  • Work 

    This includes job-interest alignment and work – life balance.

  • Rewards 

    This includes compensation, health and retirement benefits and vacation time.

While all these attributes are key factors, the weightage and priority given to one factor over the other is also influenced by the career phase an employee is in and life priorities. While for a new employee looking for encouragement and learning and opportunity to gain confidence and experience, the first two attributes may be more important along with some recognition and reward, for a mid – level employee the triggers may be others.  The approach and strategy for Employee Engagement Program needs to understand what an employee looks for at each stage of his career.  The Employee Engagement program cannot be ‘one format fits all’.  Above all, if Employee Engagement has to be successful, then it has to be a two way traffic. It is important to understand from the Employees what are the pain points and desires.  While all wishlist may not be practical or aligned to business, the pain points are good indicators as to what needs to be addressed.  Often the employee engagement initiatives are inconsistent and becomes more of a checklist item with a series of activities and survey to complete. Once the survey is done, often the loop is not closed; no information is given back to the employees on the chief findings and suggestions from these surveys and the actions taken based on the feedback.  There is no accountability of follow up actions shared.  Often the surveys are loaded with questions on how effective the Manager is and has less focus on the other aspects of workplace environment and policies.  An organization which is driven by the concept of utilization as a means of revenue generation, may compromise on employee vacation preventing vacation during certain times of the year.  This may not be stated in HR policy but is regularly followed year on year and employees are asked not to apply for leave and managers are directed not to approve leave.  In such cases, a first line manager responsible for driving productivity and utilization and delivery may not have the flexibility to grant leave or the bandwidth to get into every need of the employee.  Other factors big and small also may provide a sense of positivity and cheer and wellness and could influence employee motivation.  In the name of cost cutting or stern business controls, some changes are brought in which can also trigger dissatisfaction which festers.  For example – a good cafeteria, work from home options, a small planned sabbatical for self – improvement, a policy of taking some mandatory vacation instead of just being forced to chase up utilization in projects, could perhaps yield better results in employee engagement.  Likewise sudden scrapping of these polices which existed always may cause negative reaction.

A major cause of failure is also that initiatives are rolled out and monitored by frontline HR personnel, who may not be the best influencers or the best role model for people development and engagement who can develop and engage any type of employee.  A five level leadership model by John C Maxwell where Leaders can be categorized in 5 levels depending on the seniority and responsibility in an organization. According to this model – While driving Production is a level 3 Leader’s responsibility, People Development is a Level 4 Leader’s responsibility.  This is a very important point and this differentiation of responsibility must be understood.  A certain insight and maturity is required in people engagement and development. However due to Business reasons or Business model implemented in most corporate organization, a level 4 leader is rarely engaged in people development and it is the frontline HR staff who are thrust with the responsibility of carrying out the employee Engagement initiatives, even though they may not be fully skilled in the art of engaging people .

According to a Gallup survey, about 87% of employees across the world are disengaged. This is strong data to prove that even with all the focus, organizations are going wrong in keeping their employees engaged, involved and satisfied. Perhaps the need is to step away from a bunch of ‘team activities’ and go back to the basics i.e. to understand what each category of employee needs, to focus on the three or four top things an employee looks for (a) Job satisfaction by way of interesting work, learning potential and experience (b) rewards and recognition which also includes remuneration (c) work life balance.

The millenials are much more restless, much more energetic and much more courageous in taking risks and taking the plunge. They are also averse to stagnation and boredom and want it all. If organizations cannot keep them engaged, the millenials will not hesitate to move on. Perhaps that is a good thing after all to make the corporate world take good action

About the author:

Sonali Sengupta is a regular contributor on SOAIS blogs and brings to the table 25 years of HR domain & technology experience. She has led several large HR transformation programs and has seen HR evolve from a back-office, operations function to a strategic enabler of customer businesses. Sonali can be contacted at sonali.sengupta2001@gmail.com

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