The research didn't surprise me at all. According to a 2008 study led by Cornell University human resources professor John Hausknecht, the least satisfied workers show up more in tough times. Sure, there's a plus to covering shifts and getting basic tasks done, but there's no reason to be content with warm bodies who produce the bare minimum and drag other people down.
I'm not suggesting that big raises, bonuses, and expensive off-site, team-building events are recession-appropriate options for gaining commitment and satisfaction. Instead, I advocate proactive communication that delivers a consistent message and provides opportunities for listening, to engage employees without significant expense. My experience has been that the message is most effective when it is part of the company's culture, delivered every day. A taped statement or a single letter from the CEO will not have the desired impact; it could even backfire.
But employee engagement or not, don't we all have to put up with at least one miserable employee anyway? Only if we want to. Whining is contagious. Show me one person with bad morale, and soon it won't be hard to find a group of employees sharing a conversation about everything that's wrong with the organization.
Don't Just Complain; Do Something
Part of employee engagement is dealing with workers on an individual basis. All employees have bad mornings, days, and even weeks. I know it's important to listen to venting once in a while, but when someone constantly dumps a list of complaints at the office door, I think it's most effective to ask, "What can you do to fix the situation?" When the shocked silence ends, that individual just might look at things differently.
I have no doubt that the quickest way to alienate people is to take them out of the loop. When you keep employees in complete darkness, they spend lots of work time worrying and commiserating with others about potential outcomes.
Some organizations are more transparent than others. The most effective employers I encounter take pride in disseminating information, telling folks what's going on. The bare minimum includes company goals and targets and plans to reach them.
There are certainly times when even the most open companies can't tell all. I worked for an organization where we prided ourselves on openness. When the company was put up for sale, we couldn't post a list of interested buyers. While there was no "for sale" sign on the front door, we did tell employees that the company was being marketed.
To keep them in the loop, we had comfortable town hall meetings that included updates, followed by question-and-answer periods with the employees. We also responded to questions that employees submitted anonymously in advance. The questions were read aloud for the first time at the meeting. I remember the look of near panic on the face of a senior transition manager. He was incredulous: "Don't you screen the questions first?" I'm convinced that our employees trusted our answers more because we did not prepare them in advance. If we couldn't answer a question like, "Who will the new owner be?" we simply said so.
At the same time, I discourage sweeping statements or absolutes, whether communication is tell-all or parsed in smaller bits. I bet an employer who announces, "We are pleased to say this is the last layoff," is likely to regret the statement.
A few months after some painful staff cuts, my five direct reports came into my office, closed the door, and said, "What's going on now?" During the previous weeks I had been disappearing for lengthy, closed-door executive meetings. The layoffs had not been a surprise; we told employees about the economic realities. So my staff couldn't think of any other reason I would be sequestered in a conference room. I don't remember the subject of the long meetings, but I did learn a lesson about the impact of my actions: Your staff is watching and looking for clues when your behavior changes, even when there is nothing amiss.
Seeing Through the Mission Statements
Indeed, employee engagement is not inspired by aloofness—the detached chief executive who never learns anyone's name. I often hear about the importance of leading by example, but I think it takes a lot more than expecting employees to follow like sheep. I see the difference when management truly values individual actions that reflect and support company culture and image.
Employers may create catchy slogans, new missions, or clever tag lines to identify their company as an employer of choice—but workers see right through these and resent them. I've heard the snickers and sly comments during the rollout of mission statement campaigns in workplaces where executive behavior contradicts the new program.
The battle for employee engagement never ends. It's an ongoing part of an effective employee culture in good times and bad. I know when we have so much on our plate, talking, listening, and sending the right message can slip way down the priority list. In my opinion, it's worth the time to keep these items closer to the top of the page. The leader who doesn't notice will be reminded by his or her employees—or the press.