Becoming an Employer of Choice Through Employee Engagement

Becoming an Employer of Choice Through Employee Engagement
By Dr. Kwame R. Charles
Quality Consultants Limited

An Employer of Choice or preferred employer is an organization that people want to work for, an organization that has a reputation for being a good employer, “a great place to work.” And this reputation normally comes from the people who are already working in the organization.

In today’s world, most progressive organizations want to be considered Employers of Choice.  In an increasingly competitive local, regional and global environment, the advantages of such a designation are many.  They include the ability to attract and retain the best talent available locally, regionally and even internationally.  This, in turn, can increase the organization’s competitiveness, market share and shareholder value.  The question, then, is how does one become an “Employer of Choice”?

Employee Engagement

One way in which regional organizations can become employers of choice is to create an employee engagement culture.  Employee engagement is variously defined as:

  • The extent to which employees feel a sense of commitment to their organization, to its values, goals and objectives, and consciously and conscientiously work toward achieving them;
  • The extent to which employees find value in their work, want to work and want to contribute to their organization’s success; or
  • The extent to which employees choose to invest their physical, mental and emotional energy in their work and their organization.

The US consulting group, Hewitt Associates defines employee engagement as “the state in which individuals are emotionally and intellectually committed to the organization or group, as measured by three primary factors:

  • Say—The employee consistently speaks positively about the organization to coworkers, potential employees, and customers;
  • Stay—The employee has an intense desire to be a member of the organization despite opportunities to work elsewhere; and
  • Strive—The employee exerts extra effort and exhibits behaviors that contribute to business success.”

An increasing body of international research is finding that employee engagement is good both for the employee and for the organization.  Engaged employees are more productive, more creative, stay longer with the organization, are more willing to go the extra mile when needed, and are more likely to give customers satisfaction.  They are also more likely to tell people good things about where they work.

Unfortunately, from our own research in the Caribbean, fully half of the employees working in our organizations are either totally disengaged from their work and their organizations or are midway between engagement and disengagement.  Close to 30% are just going through the motions, essentially unhappy with their job situation.  They go to work, do the minimum that’s required of them, and then leave to come back tomorrow to do the same.  Only half of our workforce is engaged.  A 50% engaged workforce does not make for an employer of choice.

In contrast, global companies like Microsoft, Nike, Google and Starbucks have strong employer brands that set them apart from the competition and establish them as preferred employers.  That’s why they are all in the top 25 of the 2008 edition of “The Best Companies to Work for in America.”  And because they are, they are able to attract and keep the best talent around.

Employee Engagement and Employer Branding

Becoming an employer of choice has a lot to do with being “branded” as a great place to work.  Employer branding is a concept borrowed from marketing and strategic management. Essentially, it is an organization’s strategy to create a specific perception about working at the organization; the creation of an image of an organization as a great place to work in the minds of present and prospective employees.  It is how an organization sells itself as an employer of choice.

Employer branding tells prospective employees what kind of employer you are and what to expect if they come to work for you.  It reflects the organization’s engagement culture, its values, philosophy, policies, and management practices.  Ultimately, employer branding says who you are and what you stand for as an employer. Employee engagement helps organizations brand themselves as employers of choice.

To be branded as a preferred employer, organizations have to be able to distinguish themselves from the competition.  They need to be able to stand out from the crowd.  They need to give prospective employees reasons to want to work for them.  Compensation is one way to do this.  But organizations can’t depend on compensation alone to be considered a preferred employer, because, if this is their only competitive advantage, it’s only as good as the next highest bidder.  This is where building an employee engagement culture comes in.

Building an Engagement Culture

How do we engage employees?  There are several ways in which this can be done. The international survey research firm, ISR, identifies four critical drivers of employee engagement:

  1. Leadership: set clear objectives for the organization
  2. Development: provide employees with opportunities for professional development
  3. Communication: communicate effectively with employees
  4. Cooperation: build a culture of teamwork and partnering

Interestingly, our research has consistently found that the major challenges of regional organizations are communication, leadership, human resource management, and management/employee relations.

Towers Perrin, another global research and consulting firm has identified the following workplace attributes critical to building employee engagement, in order of importance:

  • Senior management’s interest in employees’ well-being.
  • Challenging work.
  • Decision-making authority.
  • Customer focus.
  • Career advancement opportunities.
  • The organization’s reputation as a good employer.
  • A collaborative, team-based work environment.
  • Resources to get the job done.
  • Input on decision making.
  • A clear vision from senior management about success.

Similarly, the Society for Human Resource Management in the US lists the following “drivers of employee engagement”, based on extensive research on the topic:

  • An employee-friendly organizational culture
  • Good work/life balance
  • Meaningful work
  • Supportive managers and co-workers
  • Adequate resources to do the job
  • A culture of trust, respect, integrity and learning
  • Clear consistent and honest communication from management
  • Positive management/employee relations
  • Progressive human resource practices

As indicated above, these last three drivers of employee engagement are some of the weakest areas in Caribbean organizations.
Our own regional research suggests that the drivers of employee engagement in Caribbean organizations are:

  • Caring and trustworthy leadership
  • Progressive human resource practices
  • Good relations between management and employees
  • Open and honest communication and dialogue
  • Generally, an engagement culture

Measuring Employee Engagement

The first step in building an employee engagement culture and becoming an employer of choice is to measure the level of employee engagement in your organization.  As the management axiom says, “If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.  And if you can’t manage it, you can’t improve it.”  It is only after you measure the employee engagement level that an organization can identify its managerial and organizational weaknesses, the gaps that exist between where it is and where it wants to be and what it needs to focus on to bridge those gaps.  Measurement through periodic employee surveys is a standard practice of preferred employers internationally, and more and more Caribbean organizations are recognizing the value and importance of measuring their employees’ engagement and satisfaction levels so that they can improve them and become preferred employers themselves.

Some of the lessons that we have learned from measuring employee engagement and satisfaction in the region are that Caribbean organizations need to:

  • Continually develop their leaders and managers to lead by example, live and practice the organization’s core values and build trust by matching their words with their actions and keeping promises;
  • Hold their leaders and managers accountable for continually engaging their employees, and reward or sanction them accordingly;
  • Develop people-centred HR policies that are practised fairly, equitably and consistently; that encourage a healthy work/life balance; that show care and respect for employees and that foster employee engagement;
  • Give employees opportunities to grow and develop;
  • Reward and recognize employees for living and practicing the core values and contributing to the achievement of organizational goals;
  • Encourage open communication and dialogue among senior management, supervisors and employees;
  • Regularly take the pulse of their employees through employee surveys to keep on top of potential problems and challenges, and to remain an “employer of choice.”

Dr. Charles is a director of Quality Consultants Limited,
A regional business research and management consulting firm