The singular greatest challenge facing human resource departments today might well be told in a statistic that, until the 21st century, was not even measured: employee engagement, which measures the percent of workers who are absorbed and enthusiastic about their job.
Employee engagement statistics measured by Gallup last year tell the story of a major crisis now confronting employers: In the United States, a mere 32 percent of employees define themselves as engaged. And on a global level, the crisis is even more severe with only 13 percent defining themselves as such.
This crisis confronting employers is also quantified in a vast cost to companies that is simultaneously staggering and alarming. According to The Engagement Institute, which was created by several leading Fortune 500 corporations and government agencies, the cost of employee disengagement to companies has reached a whopping $450 billion to $550 billion annually. How great is that cost? It exceeds this year’s entire projected gross domestic product for the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
As the extent of this employee engagement crisis has become more broadly understood, an entire industry of technology, communications, management and other firms and consultants have emerged with various conclusions about the root causes of this crisis and what can be done. Some of the findings are still operating theories and others are controversial and not yet proven.
Yet, nearly two decades into measuring employee engagement, some of the most basic conclusions are now fairly broadly understood and accepted:
1. Perceived managerial ambivalence: There is a broad perception among disengaged employees that their managers are either unaware or ambivalent about their performance. This correctly suggests that the crisis of employee engagement is not one that falls merely on the disengaged employees themselves but also on those who manage them. Chances are good that a disengaged employee is quite commonly also a poorly managed employee.
2. A perception of irrelevance: Few things are more demoralizing to employees than a perception that their work is not valued or even considered very relevant to a company’s core mission. Among disengaged employees, this failure to grasp their job’s significance—whether a product of poor managerial explanation or an employee’s failure to grasp and buy into these explanations—has created a culture of ambivalence that has been a significant contributing factor to an employee’s disengagement.
3. Failure to quantify performance metrics: Good business management accepts that what is valued is measured, but for many disengaged employees their performance is not measured objectively but instead with very subjective critiques that fail to leave an employee with a full appreciation of their respective performance, how it is measured, and how specifically it can be improved. This failure to review objectively an employee’s performance contributions and how specifically it can improve also deflates a corporate culture, creating a perception that promotions and compensation are driven by subjective and uncontrollable factors, not objective and controllable ones.
4. Morale issues: Repeated studies indicate that employees who feel valued and validated in their jobs will invest emotionally in them. But the opposite is also true: Employees who feel underappreciated, undercompensated, or insecure in their jobs will find it difficult to engage fully. Most commonly, an engaged employee is one who feels valued, sufficiently compensated, and sees both stability and a future in their employment. The engaged employee also tends to be inspired by a management that lives the performance expectations and corporate culture it expects from its employees. Few things are more demoralizing and contributing factors to employee disengagement than a perception byemployees that its management does not walk the walk and talk the talk.
The most pressing question confronting human resource executives and departments, of course, is what they can do to address the crisis of employee disengagement.
Roughly 15 years into the identification of employee engagement as a major challenge confronting companies, some consensus answers are emerging:
a. Expand opportunities for employees to speak up: One of the first characteristics of a disengaged employee is a perception that there exist no opportunities for or interest in their views or perspectives. Once an employee concludes this and begins being silent on their ideas for organizational improvement, it can tend to kick off a cycle of a disengagement and ambivalence. Managers who cease listening carefully to their employees, or fail to even provide opportunities for them to offer their views, are often predictably met by employees who cease listening to their managers. This begins a communication void that is a common symptom of the disengaged employee. Employees should always feel they have both opportunities and an open invitation to share their thoughts and views and to have them viewed seriously and without judgment.
b. Ensure employees have the tools to perform their jobs: Quite commonly, the disengaged employee feels both internally powerless and lacking in the tools and resources to perform their respective functions. This creates a perception that managerial expectations for their performance are excessively high and unrealistic but managerial understanding of their occupational needs is vastly lacking. Like the employee feeling that their views are not valued or welcome, this tends to quite quickly create a corporate culture ripe for disengagement.
c. Over communicate organizational missions, visions and values—and live them: Most employees tend to thrive in environments where the objectives of a company and their contribution to those objectives are well explained. Yet, too commonly in many corporate environments, company missions and visions are not well articulated to employees, or are poorly articulated. An engaged employee not only understands his or her company’s mission and vision but fully grasps his or her role in fulfilling and meeting that mission and vision. It’s logical, really, that an employee can only be sufficiently engaged when they understand and buy into the mission and vision with which they are being asked to engage.
d. Find opportunities to unify and recognize employees outside of traditional work settings: Most employees tend to want to feel their affiliation with a company is (as it should be) more than a narrowly defined nine to five undertaking. The more opportunities management can find to recognize employees’ performance accomplishments and to bring them together through social or volunteer opportunities, the greater chance employees will begin to see and feel that their employment makes them part of something collectively meaningful. While employees are largely and predominantly motivated by compensation, they are not exclusively motivated by it. The employee who draws both professional and personal satisfaction from their job is the employee most likely to see their engagement and long-term affiliation with an employer as both logical and worthwhile.