Employee Engagement: It’s all about the money. Or is it?

Employee Engagement: It’s all about the money. Or is it?
By Dr. Kwame R. Charles
Director, Quality Consultants Limited

Employee engagement is one of the buzzwords making the rounds of management-speak these days. There’s hardly a management journal, magazine or blog that doesn’t have an article or discussion about employee engagement. For management, it’s the best thing since sliced bread, the holy grail of modern management. It is said to improve or increase employee retention, customer service, sales, safety, product quality, profitability and shareholder ROI. And there is ample research to support each of these claims.

But what is “employee engagement”? As I’ve written in this column before, employee engagement is different things to different people. But there is consensus that it has to do with an employee’s commitment to his or her organization, as shown primarily through their willingness to “go the extra mile” for the organization or give discretionary effort to it, and to remain with it. That is, an engaged employee voluntarily goes beyond what is required of him or her to get the job done and to help the organization succeed.

We have been conducting employee engagement and satisfaction surveys in the Caribbean for the past twelve years. In our surveys, we define employee engagement by means of four Ss, three of which we’ve borrowed from the US consulting firm, AON Hewitt. They define employee engagement in terms of employees’ willingness to Say positive things about their organization, to Stay with it, and to Strive hard for it. We’ve added employees’Satisfaction with their organization. We believe that employee satisfaction is a necessary, although not a sufficient, condition of employee engagement. In other words, employee engagement can only take place in an environment where employees feel good about their organization, its leadership, its management practices, its strategic direction and their supervisor, among other things.

What does all of this have to do with the title of this column? When we measure employee engagement, we ask employees questions that tap into AON Hewitt’s three Ss. We ask them whether they are willing to say positive things about their organization, whether they are motivated to go the extra mile for it, and if they plan to stay with it. In the past, we asked employees if they would remain with their organization even if offered another job with similar pay and benefits. We now ask them if they would remain with their organization even if offered another job with more pay and benefits. Although we have just changed one word, the difference that one word has made is startling, to say the least. While most employees are willing to stay with their organizations even if offered another job with similar compensation, the number drops precipitously with the change of the one word, from “similar” to “more.”

Most people that we share these results with, say the finding is obvious! Who wouldn’t take up another job for more money?! Clearly, it wasn’t obvious to us! Our thinking was – and still is – that real engagement occurs when an employee is willing to remain with his or her organization even if offered more money elsewhere. In other words, engagement is – or should be –about more than just the money. In an “ideal” world, engagement should be about commitment to the organization, a desire to help it succeed and a willingness to contribute meaningfully to its success. We’re learning that only a few employees among us live in this “ideal world.”

What does this say about employee engagement in the Caribbean? Is it all about the money? Is our engagement for sale? Do our employees just go to the highest bidder? And if that is the case, what does it mean for those organizations that can’t compete on the basis of compensation? Are they doomed to have a revolving door of employees just waiting for the next organization to make them a better offer?

We think it’s a little more than this. We believe that these results may be saying more about our organizations than our workers. We think employees are saying, to use an Americanism, “worksucks, and all organizations suck. It doesn’t matter where I work. Its’ going to be the same. So I may as well try to get the most out of wherever I am.”

This may be why we find employee engagement, as we measure it, is so low in our organizations. Employees have little faith in their leaders and are dissatisfied with their organizations’ management practices, in particular, their human resource management practices. They don’t think that their organizations are doing enough to keep their best people, to reward top performers, to develop them to their fullest potential and to provide an environment that brings out their best.

Their leaders don’t inspire them with confidence; employeesdon’t trust them because they don’t keep their promises or admit errors; and they don’t level with employees. At least, that is how their employees see them.

Could this be why many employees are willing to leave their job and go to the highest bidder? One unfortunate, and perhaps unseen outcome of this situation is that, where there is a lack of alternative job opportunities, employees may actually “leave the organization” without leaving the organization. To quote another Americanism, “I quit, but forgot to tell you.” This is probably worse than if disengaged employees do leave the organization, as you end up with disengaged employees on your hands who are not contributing to the organization’s success, and may even be pulling it down.

So what are organizations to do? Our research with scores of organizations and thousands of employees throughout the Caribbean tells us that those organizations that can get our fourth “S” right are more likely to have engaged employees and more likely to keep them. That is, organizations where employees feel good about their leaders because they are open and trustworthy;they listen to employees and act on their ideas and suggestions;they keep their promises and admit errors when made; they clearly communicate their vision, goals and objectives anddemonstrate their core values in their daily lives. When leadership scores high in our surveys, employee engagement tends to score high. Fix leadership, and we can fix our organizations.

February 2013