Is Your Company Culture Resisting Employee Engagement?

July 01, 2013

Company Culture and Employee Engagement

We hear the talk about “actively disengaged” employees. What about the organizations that are resisting employee engagement by not providing an environment that employees want to engage with?

When we’re not talking about the work itself, there are basically two directions from which employers should be addressing employee engagement:

  1. The conditions they can actively provide their employees for the purpose of engaging them.
  2. The conditions they passively expect their employees to engage with, in addition to their work.

Employee Engagement Trends

When people talk or write about employee engagement, they tend to talk about it in terms of point number one – what things they can actively offer their employees to increase engagement, from benefits packages to employee recognition to employee empowerment. But in context of some of the latest statistics on employee engagement in North America, it’s easy to see that these efforts aren’t working:

  • Employee engagement in North America is down another point to 63%. (Aon Hewitt, 2013)
  • 70% of American employees aren’t working to their full potential, and 18% of those are “actively disengaged.” (Gallup, 2013)
  • 67% of American employees are either disengaged or underengaged. (Modern Survey, 2012)
  • $720 million per year is spent on employee engagement (Bersin, 2012)
  • Employee disengagement costs the US economy $350 billion per year (Gallup, 2011)

A $370 billion loss is not something the US can afford to ignore – and to our credit, we’re not. According to Google Trends, the topic of employee engagement has only seen an overall rise in popularity in the United States since 2005, both in keywords searched and literature produced.

employee engagement trends

*(All points on graph are relative to peak search interest=100)

This indicates a rise in awareness and interest in employee engagement, but not in actual engagement. Despite millions of dollars invested in engaging employees, why are the numbers going down, not up? Why is there no return on investment? What are we doing wrong?

There’s no question that North American engagement is a problem – or that it’s one we’re struggling to address, even in the midst of the vast array of literature dedicated to the subject. The problem, however, may be how we’re choosing to look at the problem.

Company Culture and Employee Engagement: The Bad

In short, we're not asking employees to engage in behaviors that are inherently beneficial to them. And that’s the root of the problem. Employees are invested in their organization’s well being because their own well-being is contingent upon it. But depending on whether your company culture is simply not engaging, or whether it’s actually actively resistant to employee engagement, they may uninvest in the organization regardless.

For example, if your company culture has been affected by cutbacks and downsizing to the point that employees are treated as a number after a dollar sign, you’re asking them to engage in that belief.

If your company culture is strongly affected by racism, sexism, or homophobia, you are asking your employees to engage in these beliefs.

If your company culture is resistant to hiring and promoting talent in the interest of saving the costs of recruitment and growing salaries, you are asking your employees to engage in either the belief that a) they are not talented, or b) their talent is not worth what it is.

It’s a tough thing to participate in your own depersonalization, discrimination, or undervaluing. Disengaging from this belief also means disengaging from the organization that perpetuates it – which means a loss of real human talent for the organization, and, in the last case, a lack of leaders and a succession pipeline.

Increase Employee Engagement Through Company Culture

The behaviors described above stunt organizational growth because they resist change. However, change will come regardless of the number of risks averted; and in the interest of preventing negative change, it’s necessary to be proactive for the good – and betterment – of you, your organization, and your employees.

What does this mean for your organization’s levels of employee engagement? Returning to the earlier idea that disengagement is caused by failing to provide behaviors that are beneficial to employees, in a simple equation: Behaviors which are beneficial to employees lead to employee engagement leads to organizational growth.

This also calls for another look at career development as something to be used not only when the organization is financially secure, but also to promote company growth and employee engagement – especially when times are bad. Just a few examples of targeted career development initiatives include:

  • Engaging diverse employees in higher/more active roles
  • Leadership development and succession planning
  • Filling specific knowledge and role gaps
  • Raising employee sense of ownership/responsibility toward the company
  • Encouraging lateral career movement within the company
  • Increasing employee loyalty and retention
  • Improving company and employer brand by improving company culture

For example, one of our clients, a leading professional services firm, took efforts to become more transparent about career paths for all positions within the company, strengthened its career development offerings, and fostered an environment for networking. This resulted in increased retention of top talent, savings in turnover and recruitment costs, and – last but not least – higher employee engagement and productivity.

Maybe you only want to target one of these issues; maybe you want to target a different issue entirely. But we can almost guarantee that increasing employee engagement is on your list of priorities, and that offering career development to your employees can help you do it.

The only question is how you’re going to address it.

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