Beware the Disengaged Employee! Take Steps to Protect Your Firm Now.

Employee engagement is hitting the radar of the C-suite, and for good reason. Evidence continues to mount linking engagement with productivity, and because of the challenging nature of today's business environment, interest by business leaders in ensuring their workforce is fully engaged will reach a feverish pitch in the coming months and years. Enlightened human resources executives are warning executives of potentially crippling turnover ahead if they don't get out in front of the issue today, as the economy improves and the job market opens up.

What exactly is happening?

The economy is recovering, business is improving, and demands on productivity are increasing. At the same time, payrolls have never been leaner in the wake of mass layoffs. Yet wary employers are reluctant to hire until they're confident recovery can be sustained (this is why the temporary help sector has led the recovery as employers elect to bring in contractors to fill gaps in productivity; they can be let go without liability if the skies turn dark again). Moreover, managers have been squeezing blood from the proverbial turnip for two years now, piling more work on the plates of overloaded employees while at the same time slashing wages, reducing bonuses, and halting contributions to 401K plans in an effort to tread water during the great recession. While these extreme measures may have been necessary for a company's survival during the recession, they have left the American worker exhausted, distrustful, and--most damaging--disengaged.

While some managers continue to rely on high unemployment to justify insensitivity to or even mistreatment of their employees (these are the bosses who frequently remind everyone "you're lucky to have a job"), their wiser peers are looking out on the horizon and preparing for the inevitable: defection of key talent. As is the case in every economic upturn, business will continually improve, companies will find themselves less and less able to sustain productivity, and full-time hiring will resume. When that happens, the pendulum will swing in favor of the employee as workers start to have choices again. And that will spell serious trouble for business leaders who have ignored the welfare of their workforce for too long as their key talent leaves for greener pastures. In fact, there is evidence to support that hiring is already occurring even though it may not feel like it. The Conference Board's Employment Trends Index™ rose in February for the sixth consecutive month. Now is the time to ensure your workforce is engaged.

What does it really mean to be engaged at work?

Towers-Watson, in its 2008 Global Workforce Study, defines employee engagement as "the level of connection employees feel with their measured by their help their company providing discretionary effort on a sustained basis." Boiling it down, it means employees will go above and beyond for an employer they feel a personal connection and loyalty to. If an organization does the right things to foster high engagement, its employees will reward it with their best energy each and every workday. Conversely, if employees get the message that they are not valued, engagement wanes--and along with it, productivity.

Just how dire is the state of today's workforce? We don't have to look far for validation that disengagement is at an all-time high. The same study showed only one in five workers give their full discretionary effort on the job. And very recent data from the Conference Board's 2010 study of job satisfaction in America indicates more than half of U.S. workers (55 percent) are now downright unhappy with their jobs--the highest that number has been since the annual survey began in 1987. Far from producing above the mean, unhappy employees are likely to produce much less, searching job boards, chatting on Facebook, or shopping eBay on the company's dime versus working. So not only should employers be concerned about engagement waning, they should be gravely concerned about seriously disengaged employees who have mentally checked out taking up a valuable seat in the office. This unhappy group is toxic to an organization; in fact, the Gallup Organization estimates that "actively disengaged" workers cost U.S. businesses up to $300 billion a year.

Further, managers today may have a difficult time spotting a disengaged employee. With unemployment still hovering around 10% and higher in some areas, people still fear for their jobs, so it's more likely that workers who aren't committed to the organization will hide their dissatisfaction from the boss. Who wants to call negative attention to themselves by complaining and risk losing employment in a tight job market?

What can companies do to ensure employees are engaged?

Protecting your firm against rising turnover requires continuous attention to making sure your company is and remains a great place to work. The following tactics will help foster a culture of fully engaged employees:
  • Flatten the org chart. Fewer levels in the chain of command mean less bureaucracy and politics and easier access to senior leadership for the rank and file.
  • Invest in your employees. Provide training. Engage a coach for a worker you want to retain--not for remedial purposes but as a gesture of your commitment to their growth.
  • Publicly recognize and reward performance. Beyond incentive plans, employees want to know their contributions are appreciated. There are hundreds of inexpensive ways to accomplish this--from a simple company-wide email putting someone's name in lights to a day off with pay--demonstrate appreciation consistently.
  • Communicate, communicate, and over-communicate. Nothing impedes productivity like the office rumor mill. Whether the news is good or bad, share it.
Business leaders will know they are driving a culture of engagement when their employees:
  • Are ambassadors of the company
  • Feel privileged to be on the team
  • Are emotionally tied to the organization
  • Take great pride in their work
  • Feel a strong sense of personal responsibility for the organization's success
Don't let disengagement threaten your firm's success. Take an honest look at your workforce, accept responsibility for the current state, and start making the necessary changes today to guard against turnover tomorrow.