Can the Employee Engagement unicorn ever be tamed?

Human Resources leaders and companies around the world are becoming increasingly obsessed with “Employee Engagement” and, their search for the nirvana of 100% engagement from all employees.

“Employee Experience” is the latest buzzword, and by taking a full lifecycle approach to an employee’s journey through the organisation, it is hoped that the elusive Employee Engagement will appear. 

But even if it did, industry experts say that the maximum we can hope for is 80%! One explanation is that it is unlikely that human beings will ever be 100% satisfied with everything in and out of work.

What exactly is Employee Engagement?

Employee Engagement is about commitment and loyalty to the organisation, and pride in being able to say you work for that company.   It’s about:

  • employee motivation,
  • employer brand,
  • how aligned employees feel with a company’s values, and ultimately,
  • how well the latter translate into the employee’s day to day reality.

Employee Engagement is hugely complex, because it’s about the connection an employee feels to their company, which can change on a day to day basis, be affected by things outside of work, and the consideration that every employee is different and motivated by different things.

Understanding it, and chasing it, is a long-term endeavour, and unsurprisingly, some HR teams and C-Suites are starting to question the value of doing so.

People are the cornerstone of every organisation, the shop-window to its customers and the world, and employees all have extra effort within them that they can choose, or not, to use in favour of their organisation’s goals. 

Employee Engagement is a must for every strategic agenda, and what naturally happens when a company creates a positive mission that its people can get behind. This empowers employees to become a part of it.

A disengaged workforce, on the other hand, wastes time and energy every second that they are not in line with the company’s mission, and if the company doesn’t even have a mission, then its employees are probably only showing up for the pay cheque. 

This disengagement manifests itself in tangible loss – in financial terms - and intangible loss – in employee connectivity, which is more difficult to quantify in the following key areas:

1. Lost productivity – a disengaged workforce doesn’t try as hard or work as efficiently as it could, leading to costly mistakes and rework.

2. Lost thought leadership – if people are not engaged, they are less likely to suggest innovation and press ahead with continuous improvement ideas that could bring additional revenue streams.

3. Headcount turnover – people often walk out of the door after you have spent years investing in them, and it’s not just their salary that goes, but an amount far bigger.

4. Company reputation – The website “Glassdoor” is becoming key to Employer Brand, as potential candidates use it in their search for their next employer.  Arguably Employee Engagement starts before an employee even sets foot inside your company offices.

5. Lost potential – employees all have potential, and with the right environment, this potential is limitless.  When Employee Engagement around a strong mission gets all employees rowing in the same direction, this creates an additional force - organisational potential.  Without Employee Engagement, all we can hope for is the status quo.

Not all five areas above can be quantified to a financial value, although arguably headcount turnover of your “high potentials” is a useful measure.  

If you were to run this calculation today, what would that value look like? 

Now multiply it by three, because this will sadly be the cost of recruiting a replacement and upskilling them, plus the downtime while they settle in and the impact on the teams and people around them. 

And what about all five points listed above?  What would be their cumulative financial impact?

Is this a value you can afford to lose, or is it time to tame the unicorn?

Notes: Glenn G Jones is a freelance HR consultant (MSc, Chartered Fellow of CIPD and CIPP) and author of “Human Resources Changes The World”. Karen J. Hewitt is a Culture Change specialist and author of “Employee Confidence – the new rules of Engagement”, shortlisted in the Leadership category for the Business Book Awards 2019.