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The road to employee disengagement starts early

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The road to employee disengagement starts early

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It’s widely known that employee engagement is in pretty dire straights.  As befitting a topic of such importance, there have been no shortage of efforts to improve, or at least better understand the situation.  After all, it’s said to cost $500 billion a year in lost productivity for American companies alone.

A report by the Institute for Corporate Productivity last year outlined four approaches organizations could take to improve engagement levels.  A Deloitte report from earlier this year went further, and outlined five steps towards improving employee engagement.

  1. Meaningful work –this first one is probably well known, as there has been an awful lot of discussion over the past few years, not least on this blog, about providing employees with purpose and intrinsic fulfillment in their work.  It shouldn’t really be news therefore, but the awful engagement stats suggest that few organizations have mastered this
  2. Great management –it’s a common refrain that people tend to leave their manager rather than their employer, and Bersin reinforces the important role managers play in coaching, providing feedback and giving employees development opportunities.  This is an issue I’ve touched on a few times on the blog recently, with various studies showing how overbearing bosses can stifle innovation and collaboration.
  3. Opportunities for growth –people want to improve, whether it’s their abilities or their status, and Bersin suggests a lack of growth opportunities is catnip for employee engagement.  Open innovation can be great for this, because it not only provides employees with interesting areas to deploy their skills within, but this process also gives you great insights into the areas that matter to employees.  It’s hard to develop skills in areas if you’re not aware they matter.
  4. Make work fun –this is again an area that I’ve touched on before, and it ties in overwhelmingly with the meaningful work section.  I mean you can have all the ‘funky’ facilities and that you like, but if people aren’t signed up to the general mission of the company, those things will come across as little short of naff and forced.  I’ve written before about forced fun and how it tends to backfire in terms of engagement, so it’s clear that you can’t really fake authenticity.
  5. A culture of trust –the final criteria Bersin identifies is being able to trust your leaders.  Ok, he strictly speaking says inspirational leadership, but I’m not sure I fully agree with this charismatic stuff so much.  Transparency and trust however go hand in hand, and I’ve shown a couple of studies previously highlighting the way trust leads inevitably to higher performance, as employees fully believe that you’ve got their best interests at heart, so will put their all into their work.

It’s a good list, and one that provides a systemic look at improving engagement levels.  The tips do however all revolve around the workplace itself.  A recent report by INSEAD suggests that employee disengagement can actually start before the employee has set foot inside the office.

The paper suggests that recruitment, and the processes involved in it, are fundamental to successful employee engagement.  They suggest that certain recruitment practices, such as job offers that have to be accepted in double quick time or else they’re rescinded, get engagement off on the wrong foot before the employee even begins.

The research saw participants divided into either a recruiter group, or an applicant group.  The recruiters were given the option of offering either an exploding job offer that had to be accepted quickly, or an open ended one that didn’t.  The applicants were instructed to reject the exploding offer if they thought there was a good chance of a better offer coming along.

This was done to test whether these expiring offers were actually effective in the first place.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it emerged that the exploding job offers were rather ineffective at enticing employees.  What’s more however, the offer itself was enough to annoy candidates enough as to cause a droop in their engagement levels.

“The proportion of the responders that would accept an exploding offer was close to 50 percent in three out of four studies (and never significantly higher than 50 percent), but responders reciprocated much less positively to the proposer after accepting an exploding offer than when accepting an extended offer. In other words, the proposers issuing an exploding offer suffered from what we call the reciprocation curse,” the authors say.

Self fulfilling

Now, the interesting part was that those candidates that were ok with the exploding offer (ie they accepted it), were then found to be much more likely to offer them when they were in a recruiting position.

Of course, the study was quite narrow in its focus, but it does highlight how employee engagement can be eroded before the employees first day on the job.  Just because they’ve said yes to your offer should not be mistaken for strong levels of engagement.

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