In Their Opinion...

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Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation, Clinton County, New York.

Paul Grasso: Employee engagement a two-way street

By: Paul Grasso, Just Sayin'

I took the opportunity when things slowed down during the recent holiday season to go through my “Must Read” file and actually read all those articles I wanted to read throughout the year but never did. Two of the articles caught my attention because they coincidentally touched on the same issue but from different perspectives.

The first was an article about Gallup’s The State of the American Workplace 2010-2012 Report. In that report, Gallup found that only 30 percent of American workers “were engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace, 52 percent were “not engaged” and 18 percent were “actively disengaged.” Gallup defines the three types of employees thusly:

Engaged — “Employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company.”

Not Engaged — “Employees are essentially checked out” and do not put “energy or passion into their work.”

Actively Disengaged — “Employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness” by “undermining what their engaged co-workers accomplish.”

The report hit home because in my last job I had to work with partner organizations that had more than a few employees in the not-engaged or actively disengaged categories.

Surprisingly, the figures in Gallup’s report haven’t changed much since Gallup began tracking employee engagement. Since 2000, the figures have remained constant. The lowest “engaged” percentage was 26 percent in 2000 and 2005. The highest percentage is 30 percent, achieved in five different years. In 2009, the percentage of “engaged” employees was 28 percent and has increased by 1 percent each year since; the trend appears to be positive.

Gallup’s Q12 Employee Engagement Survey, on which their report is based, shows a strong correlation between employee engagement and business outcomes, including increased “productivity, profitability and customer engagement.” Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost American businesses between $450 billion and $550 billion in lost productivity annually.

However, there’s a big difference between recognizing the problem of low employee engagement and doing something about it.

This brings me to the second report that I read. It was a report from Bersin & Associates, an Oakland-based HR research firm, indicating that although American companies spent $46 billion annually on employee recognition:

— Only 17 percent of employees surveyed indicated that their company’s “organizational culture strongly supported employee recognition;”

— 87 percent of employer responses indicated their recognition programs were designed to recognize “service or tenure;” 

— 70 percent of employee responses indicated that they are recognized “annually or not all;” but

— 80 percent of senior leaders responded that their companies recognized employees “at least monthly.”

Two things are clear; many employee-recognition programs aren’t accomplishing what they’re intended to accomplish, and there’s a serious disconnect between senior leaders and employees regarding these programs.

It’s interesting to me that 70 percent of employees believe that their employers recognize them “annually or not at all” and that the 70 percent are either “not engaged or actively disengaged” in their workplace.

Coincidence? Perhaps not.

If 87 percent of employee recognition programs recognize service or tenure, then employees in those organizations apparently aren’t being recognized for their strengths, accomplishments, and/or talents. What they’re being recognized for is “showing up,” and that’s exactly what they do, show up.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the civil service employment system, and I’m not a fan for exactly the reasons stated above; the civil service treats all of their employees equally but not equitably, but that’s a column for another day.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that employee recognition is the only reason there are so many employees disengaged from the workplace, but it is a part of the solution.

Improving and maintaining employee engagement varies by company size, location and industry, as well as how much the organization invests (time and money) in developing its corporate culture.

Companies with high employee engagement realize that motivating high performance and aligning talent with business strategies require a deep understanding of what is important to employees. They understand the drivers that are most meaningful to their employees, and they take the time to understand what employees are thinking and feeling. Even more important is actually using the information they collect to respond to reasonable employee needs.

Nevertheless, no matter how much feedback my assistant, Barbara, gives me regarding how it will raise her level of engagement, I am not bringing in a masseuse three times a week.

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