Practical Ways to Address Employee Engagement


July 6, 2010

Last week, I was reading ‘Enough of the Platitudes- Answer the Rest of the Question’ by Paul Hebert.  Paul has his own incentive and reward design consultancy, i2i,  (shameless plug to check it out and hire Paul) and  he maintains an active blog as well.  In that particular post, Paul waxed philosophical on the fact that on several media platforms today, including Twitter, people are just throwing out grandiose ideas with no substance behind them as to how to answer the questions.  He then provided results from a recent Twitter search on “employee engagement” and “SHRM10” to demonstrate all the deep thoughts.

I decided to take on a couple of the tweets he posted and add some examples of substantive ways organizations could address the rest of the question:

  • Employee engagement is the holy Grail! Trust, pride in corporate symbol, opportunity/well being=3 main drivers

Ah, the mention of the Holy Grail reminds me of the Monty Python movie.  Here’s an exchange from the movie that may actually fit with this theme.

King Arthur:   “Well, who is your lord?”
Dennis’ Mother:   “We don’t have a lord.”
King Arthur: “What?”
Dennis: “I told you, we’re an anarcho-syndicist commune. We take turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.

Certainly rotating who is the acting executive officer for the week would be a creative way to increase employee engagement.

All kidding aside, an example of how to increase employee engagement is to build the trust, the pride in the mission (corporate symbol), and provide opportunities and well being of the employees.  By asking staff level employees to step up and give input and take ownership of key areas that affect employee engagement you can actively work to change the culture.  This is truly the only way to increase engagement long term.  You have to have the buy-in of the staff. Instead of having HR “own” the employee engagement survey, form a committee of staff level employees that represent the various departments in your organization. Facilitate the committee but make sure that the employees are the ones driving how to increase employee engagement by sharing ideas, best practices, and determining the best way to communicate throughout the year.

  • Massive collaboration to initiate and integrate sustainability. Direct employee engagement at innovation rather than competition.

Now, these are two completely separate concepts that can act alone.  But, when done in concert, I would imagine the results could be miraculous.  One option would be to launch an organization-wide sustainability audit and then institute an internal task force to come up with ways to address the areas of highest vulnerability.  This should include employees from staff through leadership levels.  I would appoint someone in middle/ early management as the project lead with a leader as a mentor.  This will provide skill development for the more inexperienced manager and also give credibility to the project so that the staff level will be more likely to speak up and participate.

For the innovation piece, tell the committee up front to “dream big”.  Tell them to brainstorm solutions regardless of what they think they will cost, how many people will have to be involved, etc.  In other words, tell them that you want them to be as creative as possible in their sustainability solutions.  Then, as leadership, provide them with tools to aid in their innovation.

  • Al Gore at #SHRM10 “employee retention and engagement key to future of business.”
Ok, I was not present for Al Gore’s speech, however, if this is an accurate quote of what he said, I think he was on the right track but ultimately missed the boat.  Why?  Well, in my experience, employee retention is not the key to the future of business.  Retaining the RIGHT employees is key.  There is always a need to let low performers or employees who do not promote the corporate philosophy and mission go.  We do not want to retain them in most cases.  So, I would change his statement to be “Key employee retention and engagement leads to a stronger future for the business.”  The challenge is actually retaining the key employees.  Now, some will be motivated by money and others by challenge or opportunity. I’ll throw it back to Paul Hebert to address a real-life example of how to incent people to stay with the organization.
  • Cross departmental teamwork is critical to overall engagement.

This one will only work if you make it measurable.  Set up cross-functional teams that actually align several department or several parts of departments.  Focus on providing service as consultants would, even if the customer you are dealing with is internal.  Set this new team up for success and instead of rewarding individual performance, reward the team when they accomplish specific milestones together.  This may be a revenue target, number of new customers served, or whatever metric makes sense for that particular team and the work they are doing.  The point is to help employees understand that they can accomplish more and feel greater fulfillment when working as a cross-functional team.

So, there are a few ways to get to the rest of the story.  What do you think?  Have examples of how you’re organization has done this?  Share it in the comments.


  • Well Trish – thanks for the props! Hope you had a great weekend – obviously you were thinking as well as grillin and chillin.

    To respond to some of your thoughts – all good I might add…

    First: I think your idea to have staff employees own the engagement survey is a great idea. HR is the transmission device – not the message. Employees who have a say in their organization mission/values/direction are more likely to be engaged #fact. It has been proven that intrinsic motivation increases when people have a strong internal locus of control – meaning they believe they control outcomes. This is a great way to get them to see they do have input and impact.

    Second – Agree again on the “innovation vs. competition” statement. I would add that in most cases employees need some guidance on the boundaries of their brainstorming. I’ve been at organizations where the employees recommended eliminating benefits in order to earn a bonus for saving money. Some guidance is required. But again – a good way to install a focus on what THEY can do adding to their engagement.

    Third – I’ll skip the challenge for now and come back to it – your last point on cross-departmental teamwork – I agree again (I wish all my clients were as clear-headed and as smart as you – then again what would I do 8-5 each day if they were!)

    Lastly – the challenge – “how to incent people to stay with the organization”

    All of your suggestions are part of the answer. I’d add…

    Create performance metrics that matter and that are visible. Top performers like to stay with top performers. When performance measurement is “squishy” it creates a culture of second-guessing (“Why is Mary still here?”) and variation between departments and managers. Performance isn’t opinion (or it shouldn’t be.)

    I wouldn’t “incent” anyone to stay at an organization. You may think I’m picking nits but putting any “incentive” in place to get people to stay is unfortunately a bit of a “bribe.” As you mentioned it isn’t about retention – it’s about setting up an environment where the RIGHT employees want to stay.

    I know it’s a too-oft used example but Zappos has it right – don’t worry about keeping people – worry more about getting rid of the wrong ones. I said it at #HRevolution – managers need to hire slower and firer faster. That’s the way to keep the right people at the onset.

    Train managers in human behavior, motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic.

    Train managers in how to connect behaviors to company values – and how to recognize individuals (least trained behavior IMHO) – forget about managers being focused on function – that’s what the people are for – managers need to be experts on people – not TPS reports.

    Train Sr. Managers on the above as well – that biggest weakest link in most organizations is the platitudes from Sr. Mgt. and their behaviors. They need to get it before the rank and file will get it!

    The net is that every company will be a bit different but the goal is the same –

    Define Success
    Train managers on people not processes
    Publically recognize success to continue to communicate appropriate behaviors
    Remove the “weeds” to let the flowers grow

  • Hi Trish, I found you via your Twitter follow, thanks!

    While I am out of the corporate sector now, I spent quite a number of years in the Chicago area working for several large companies. I am not an HR person, though I did perform many HR duties in the course of my career as an administrative assistant and office administrator. I’m sure many people have stories about employer practices that caused them to leave a firm, myself included.

    I did work as a temp at a large telecommunications company, specifically, in their employee training division. First of all, they gave everyone there a free lunch. They catered food in for the trainees and all employees were invited to grab breakfast and lunch. The trainers were all VP’s from regional offices, who were rotated in for a 6 month stint as a trainer. There was only one office, for the big VP who came to visit from their corporate headquarters, and that was mainly for privacy when discussing confidential matters. The rest of the floor was open, and the VP trainers had the same sized cubicle that I did, and all cubicles had half walls so people could communicate freely if necessary.

    The room was divided up between their logistics department, the trainers, and the support staff (such as myself). The duties were similar to other jobs: answering phones, maintaining calendars, typing up meeting notes, preparing PowerPoint presentations, and coordinating the trainers’ schedules with the logistics department. Since they trained a large number of employees from all over the Midwest every day, it was a pretty fast-paced environment. But it was a very pleasant environment, in large part due to the open atmosphere and the easygoing “we’re all in this together” attitude.

    In contrast, their main facility, which was 100 feet away, was a stark cold environment, resembling something out of a science fiction movie, down to the 3-tiered metal walkways and mail robots. I sat in a cubicle with high walls and my own coat closet, and rarely saw my boss. The only human interaction I had was going to the printer room to pick up documents, or the employee cafeteria at lunch.

    In both places, I got my job done, but which one do you think I’d recommend to someone as a top place to work?

    • @Marie- Thanks so much for the comment. What a powerful example of how different working experiences can be within one organization. When you describe the main facility, which you do quite well, I literally pictured that early scene from the movie ‘Joe vs. the Volcano’ where Tom Hanks works in the grey, dimly lit, dingy office. It is true that people often resist moving to more open floor plans and don’t like to give up actual offices, but of all the places I’ve seen where they do, employee morale is often better than the alternative. So glad you stopped by!

  • Trish:

    This was a well-written piece on engagement. You make your points well and they are key. Loved the bold point:

    Massive collaboration to initiate and integrate sustainability. Direct employee engagement at innovation rather than competition.


  • Excellent post, Trish. But just as HR shouldn’t “own” employee engagement, neither should a committee (regardless of who makes it up. Actually, not just shouldn’t, but can’t.

    I believe engagement isn’t an initiative, process or anything else that can be easily surveyed. You can’t foist engagement on someone (or many someones). The best you can do is create an environment in which employees WANT to engage. And that is the job of all employees. Sure, management and HR have distinct roles in that. As you say, removing those employees who detract from the company is key. But on the positive side, all employees, at all levels, have a responsibility for contributing to that “engaging environment.” HR/Leadership does have the additional role of setting up and promoting programs that can encourage engagement, such as employee recognition systems.

    Much more on the “foist vs. foster” discussion in a post I wrote for the Enterprise Engagement Alliance:

    • @Derek- I completely agree with you. Each employee owns engagement. In this example, the committee is just a way to move the needle a little closer to that happening. When you have an organization where management or HR is viewed as the owners, you have to take some baby steps to turn the tide the other way. We are using an employee communications committee to bring awareness to the fact that each employee does have a voice in our organization. Then, we are going to work with managers so that they can begin to take actionable steps to make some of the changes and recommendations the employees bring to them. Hopefully, these small steps will lead to employees who feel more connected because their suggestions brought change. So glad you commented and made some great points. thanks

  • Hi Trish,

    I found this blog Via Search engine.

    I would like to say in my work experience with Corporates, startups and small business organizations a few practices at my present organization element8 software are definitely great ways of engaging employees:

    – Transparency within the organization.
    – Reach of a helping hand any time(if not my immediate manager then another person who can help)
    – One on ones and team meeting on a regular basis.
    – An open platform(we use our own platform xpoint ;)) to add ideas for any process change or new process and to collaborate.
    Example – While we were choosing a new office space, everyone in the organization had choice to give opinions and suggestions. And after which we go to see the new office space and give ideas for customization.

    Apart from all that the greatest driving factor is Our CEO who gives attention and spares time for every employees queries and questions. I m sure this not possible in every organization. But If not the CEO(which is in most cases) why wont the mangers spend time say onces a month with their team… find individual issues and address them?

    And make employees be a part of any change from changing curtains to floor mat to logo… ask they opinion as they represent the company and spend 50 – 60% of their lifetime working.

    And probably for big organizations its too difficult to get ideas from everyone. Probably they can use a software as a platform to collect ideas on various stuff. Similar to what we do!


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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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