How to Create Employee Engagement

Debbie Zmorenski

Every organization has rude customers, operational and financial challenges, and employee turnover. However, the tough economy, the feeling that job stability is a thing of the past, the ever-decreasing benefits and bigger workloads have created an atmosphere of malcontent and distrust within the employee ranks.

Unfortunately, most company executives are too far removed from the front line to realize that conditions are ripe for a tsunami of turnover when the recession ends. Supervisors on the front line are busy scrambling to keep their own jobs and are just as frustrated, worried and exhausted as their employees, creating an environment of "every man and woman for themselves!"

A recent Harris Interactive survey uncovered the following statistics on American job satisfaction:

  • Across America, 45 percent of workers say they are either satisfied or extremely satisfied with their jobs.
  • Only 20 percent feel very passionate about their jobs.
  • Thirty-three percent believe they have reached a dead end in their career.
  • Twenty-one percent are eager to change careers.
  • Older workers are the most satisfied and the most engaged in their work.
  • Younger workers are the most distressed and feel the least amount of loyalty to their employers.
  • Small-firm employees feel far more engaged in their work than their corporate counterparts.
  • Job security, health-care coverage and professional development are valued above additional compensation.

What is most worrisome is the disconnect between how workers feel about their jobs and careers and how management perceives what they are feeling. This disconnect is evident in the results from the fourth annual survey of employee job satisfaction by

  • Approximately 65 percent of respondents said they were “somewhat” satisfied, but less than 15 percent said they were “extremely” satisfied.
  • Meanwhile, employers believe that 30 percent of their workers are “extremely” satisfied.
  • Sixty-five percent of employed survey respondents said they are looking around (up more than 17 percent this year). Sixty percent said they plan to intensify their job search over the next three months despite the economy.
  • Nearly 80 percent of responding managers do not believe that their employees will initiate a job search in the next three months.

One reason for this disparity in actual worker satisfaction and managers’ perception of worker satisfaction may be that employees are putting on a “happy face” to ensure that they do not lose their current job. The question then is, "What happens when the job market opens up and new opportunities become available?" I believe that many companies will experience a mass exodus of employees.

A recent survey of 5,000 U.S. workers found job satisfaction to be the lowest in two decades, with interest in their work down 18.9 percent, job security down 16.5 percent, interest in the people at work down 11.6 percent and satisfaction with their supervisors down 9.5 percent.

Take a few moments to really look at your employees. The telltale signs of disengaged employees are obvious. Disengaged people exist in all types of businesses, across all industries, and they have always been there, just not in the numbers often seen today. You can spot them by their indifferent, blasé attitudes. They don’t care about the company. They probably don’t like their jobs. And, they send negative signals everywhere they go.

Disengaged people are like poison. They don’t perform their own jobs well. They drive customers away. They have a bad influence on your other staff. Often, they are the cause of conflict and/or low morale within the ranks. Yet few people start off disengaged. It’s typically a process that happens over time, as employee and employer expectations grow further and further apart.

The challenge with the disengagement process is that it can happen slowly and subtly. Usually, there are no big red flags or loud alarm bells that announce the growing discontent of employees.

Conversely, engaged employees go above and beyond their job descriptions to get things done. They’re committed to the organization’s success, and they’re willing to take on additional responsibilities to ensure that the company is successful. They feel like part of the team and have the “all for one and one for all” attitude.

The benefits of creating an engaged workforce are clear. An engaged workforce drives customer loyalty, reduces conflict in the workplace, increases productivity and improves profitability.

At first blush, creating an engaged workforce may seem like an overwhelming task. The good news is that it is neither extremely costly nor complicated to do so.

Below are several ways to create employee engagement or re-engage your employees:

Define Engagement: You must first understand what employee engagement means to your company. There are many definitions, but each company’s culture is unique. Take some time to list the attributes, characteristics and behaviors of engaged employees within your culture. For example, employees should:

  • Take pride in their work, delivering quality performance, product and productivity.
  • Deliver exceptional service to customers, driving customer loyalty.
  • Go above and beyond expectations on a daily basis.
  • Perform as a team, working together toward the common goal.
  • Intend to stay with the company.
  • Support the company’s decisions during difficult as well as prosperous times.
  • Display the attitude of “We’re all in this together.”

Clarify the Vision: It is impossible for employees to be engaged if they do not understand the vision for the future, the goals of the organization and their part in fulfilling the vision and reaching the goals.

Clear Expectations: Clearly state expectations for employee results and behaviors, holding them accountable for results and behaviors.

Communicate: Give them the good news and the bad news. Do not blindside employees with bad news that affects them. If you are trying to avoid layoffs and/or furloughs by cutting hours, let them know the reasoning behind your decision.

Reward and Recognize: Let employees know that their contributions are appreciated.

Involve the Employees: When you are facing tough decisions or experiencing operational challenges, ask for their ideas and input.

Understand the Leaders’ Role: There is a direct correlation between the leaders’ behaviors and the level of engagement within the company. Leaders must demonstrate the same traits and behaviors that are expected of employees. Leaders who are open and honest in communications, are focused on employee well-being, demonstrate positive support for the organization and serve as a role model for engagement provide a positive impact on the overall morale within the employee ranks.

"Improving employee engagement does not have to be overwhelming," says Mike Dolen, managing partner of Kenexa’s Global Survey Practice. "There are many ways to take small, incremental steps that lead to sustained improvement."

Whether you adopt all of the steps above to engage or re-engage your employees may depend on your assessed level of engagement within your organization. Whatever you do, do something. Your employees represent your brand, and they have a powerful impact on your bottom line.

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About the Author

Deborah K. Zmorenski, MBA, is the co-owner and senior partner of Leader’s Strategic Advantage Inc., an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm. During her 34-year career with the Walt Disney W...