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Filling the engagement gap: How employers can fight employee flight

A couple of recent surveys paint a disturbing picture: One survey from talent management firm Right Management found that 83 percent of 900 North American employees surveyed plan to seek new positions in 2014. Another Right Management survey reports that 56 percent of the more than 1,800 human resources managers polled concede that their employee engagement efforts are falling short. 

The picture seems clear: When engagement doesn’t work, employees look.

“These numbers should signal a wake-up call for top management, when four out of five employees say they intend to look for employment elsewhere,” Right Management’s global practice leader for employee engagement Scott Ahlstrand says. “Solutions to keeping the best talent on board all point to effective engagement that drives performance, satisfaction, and loyalty.”

Just where to start when devising an effective engagement strategy can be daunting, but doable when certain principles are kept in mind.

Getting started
Mary Anne Kennedy, owner of MAKHR Consulting, says organizations both large and small need to keep a few basics in mind when developing an engagement strategy:

  • Having a clear mission and vision helps employees understand how their performance and behavior make a contribution.
  • Clearly defined job expectations with measurable objectives to track success also drive engagement.
  • Communication on all levels can ensure transparency and show how the organization is moving forward.
  • Well-trained leaders and opportunities for professional growth also build engagement.

Serious listening
Ronald M. Katz, president of Penguin Human Resource Consulting, LLC, stresses the importance of asking employees what they want and then really listening. “HR has to listen all around, up, down, and sideways if they’re going to come up with an effective strategy, if they’re going to engage both the employee base and the senior leadership,” he says.

Kennedy also says HR needs to listen to employees. An employee survey can be a good tool, “but with all surveys those who aren’t happy will be very loud and those who are doing fine sometimes don’t respond,” she says. “Therefore the accuracy of the data can be misleading.”

To overcome the shortcomings of surveys, Kennedy suggests training leaders to recognize the significance of regular one-on-one conversations to assist in “checking the temperature of the team members.”

Top leader buy-in
Getting participation from top executives also is vital. If the leaders at the top show interest “they will see the result in their bottom line,” Kennedy says.

Katz also stresses the importance of commitment from an organization’s higher-ups. Without it, engagement “falls flat.” If an organization wants to demonstrate to employees that it’s serious about engagement, it needs to create a task force or project team with a senior leader’s name attached to it, he says.

“HR needs to be the process leaders but not the project leaders,” Katz says. “You need to have employees at all levels – vice presidents, directors, first-line supervisors, line staff” on the team.

Katz also says to make sure all demographics in the workforce are represented. For example, a company employing a lot of women with school-age children should make sure to include those employees. A company trying to recruit recent college graduates should make sure to include a few 20-somethings on the team.

It’s HR’s job to communicate to top executives that engagement is good for business, Katz says. “HR needs to feed that up the chain. Engaging employees is not an employee benefit. The whole idea of engagement is that it’s good for business,” he says.

What employees want
Katz says he’s found that what most employees want more than anything is a challenge and the opportunity to learn. “I have found that learning things and being challenged to learn new things, that’s what keeps them engaged,” he says, and that’s true for all age and ethnic groups.

HR can’t guarantee employees employment, but they can provide opportunities to guarantee their employability, Katz says. HR needs to tell employees, “We will invest in you. We will train you. We will keep your skills up to speed.” All the small and trendy perks such as free coffee and foosball in the lobby won’t by themselves make people engaged, he says. Instead, people want to be challenged and know they’re making a contribution.

Katz cites examples including online retailer Zappos.com and online medical care scheduling service Zocdoc. Both employers are often cited as great places to work even though a lot of the workers are part time with no benefits and fairly low salaries. Plus, they work in “cubicle land.”

In spite of those seemingly undesirable factors, workers love their jobs, Katz says, Those employers are targeting a specific kind of workforce – people who are Internet savvy, comfortable with mobile devices and other cutting-edge technology. The work environment promotes an engaged workforce because the workers are learning skills that they know they can use to advance within the company or market to another employer, he says.

Even people who have been in the workforce for years and are counting down to retirement still need to keep learning, Katz says, because jobs change every day. Even jobs as rote as a cashier or stock clerk change, and employees who keep learning remain engaged.