Why HR is its own worst enemy when it comes to employee engagementby
In recent years, the use of the written term ‘employee engagement’ has overtaken phrases such as ‘staff incentives’ and ‘employee motivation’1 for the first time since 1920, demonstrating an emerging new ‘engagement’ model when motivating staff, particularly those who work for large, global organisations.
Employee engagement is a compelling proposition and there have been dozens of studies which ‘prove’ to companies the benefits of highly engaged employees. Allan Schweyer of the Human Capital Institute says: "A study by global services provider Towers Watson found that high-engagement firms experienced an earnings-per-share (EPS) growth rate of 28%, compared with an 11.2% decline for low-engagement firms."
So far, so good. Any logical, right-minded executive would be foolish not to support a solid, internal engagement initiative with this kind of scientific research and clear business benefits, but many fail to implement it successfully. One of the main reasons behind this is lack of collaboration between departments. Leaving HR to handle employee engagement without effective partnership with other areas of the company means the message of ‘employee engagement’ is often lost in the delivery.
HR processes and protocols have managed to strangle many great engagement initiatives at birth…and then everyone wonders why it doesn’t work for them.
This is where collaboration with other departments becomes key. Let’s take communication. Writing words that are compelling with suitable visual imagery to match is a specialist skill that works. When it comes to engaging staff, if a message is professionally written, more employees will see it, read it and take notice of it than if it is a round-robin from the HR director reminding them about the deadline for pension contributions decisions and public holidays.
So why not take advantage of the marketing department down the corridor when crafting employee notices? No doubt there are some in HR who are good at ‘comms’, but statistically they are few and far between. It’s not where most HR people are recruited from and it’s not where they feel most comfortable, yet there still seems to be a lingering reluctance to relinquish some control and join forces when it comes to the area of staff engagement.
Input from other departments may also help over-ride HR’s penny-pinching tendencies. The problem is HR people are hard-wired to cut and snip and chop, so that before you know it, all the hair on the head has gone, leaving the organisation with no choice but to wait for it to grow again. This is not good in the context of employee engagement.
The problem is one of attitude. HR departments are dominated by the need to save money. Spending resources on good communication and performance-based rewards hangs heavy and any rewards for better engagement are given with a weighty dollop of resentment.
Most external services purchased by HR are led by cost-per-employee measures which belie the strategic view that ‘we must invest in staff’. Benefits are pared down to the bone. Volume deals with suppliers are squeezed to the point of desert-like aridity that one wonders sometimes why the benefits supplier would even turn up to a meeting at all.
There are legions of conferences run by HR which are so slim in terms of presentation and content that you do begin to wonder why they bothered.
Recruitment is consolidated so as to avoid ‘the fees’, with most recruiting being done in-house and online, even though, hour-for-hour, this is a very expensive way to find new blood.
And what about the rewards themselves? There is an axiom in incentive theory that suggest that no-one will change their behaviour at work for less than 3% of take-home pay…or its equivalent. So why would an employee go above and beyond the call of duty for less than 1%? It really makes no sense.
To engage employees in organisation-changing behaviour, offering the best of the best ‘lunch with the CEO’ and a paper certificate after a year’s hard work is about as effective as a chocolate teapot. ‘What gets rewarded, gets done’ is an oft-quoted maxim when it comes to changing processes. But make the reward worth having!
As for cash, why is it that despite over 50 years of research into cash v non-cash (non-cash reward is some three times more effective than cash) HR folk still insist on using cash bonuses as the go-to reward choice. Not only is it more expensive than other rewards, because there is no discount for cash, recipients mostly view cash as a cynical ‘bribe’ by management to get employees to do what perhaps they should be doing willingly anyway.
What could be done to change this, do-it-yourself, cheap as chips approach to employee motivation?
Why not appoint a director of engagement who sits on the board and has two key staff: a marketing director and an HR director. That way the communication and incentive needs for engagement can be met professionally and the natural HR tendency to do things on the cheap can be curtailed. The converse is also true. Any spending excesses from marketing can be reined in and a suitably professional compromise agreed.
In the final analysis the incremental corporate gains from better engagement are so enormous that the extra £10,000 here or there pales into insignificance in the overall scheme of things, especially for shareholder returns. And you never know, the organisation might even be a more fun place to work in than it used to be.
1 USA-based Enterprise Engagement Alliance bulletin, March 2011