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Employee Engagement: Enough!

The recession is no time to worry about employee engagement. Pro or con?

Pro: Concentrate on the Business, Not the Workers

Sure, go ahead and worry about employee engagement. After all, you’re in this fix because of a lack of engagement, right? The lack of sales, lack of new product and service innovation, and the high cost to build, produce, sell, and service are all engagement issues. If only you had engaged employees, all those problems would disappear. “Damn those employees. They should be engaged, and they’re not. We have to engage our employees to survive (cue dramatic fist pound on mahogany table in senior executive conference room.)”

Everyone is focusing on the employee engagement problem. But in reality, now is not the time to worry about finding ways to engage employees. Now is the time to be reflective and address the real issues in business today. Let’s take a cue from the late Michael Jackson:

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change

Yep, it is all your fault.

The problem with focusing on “employee engagement” is that makes it sound as though employees were disengaged because of the lack of employee engagement programs. But engagement programs treat the symptom not the disease.

The real disease is poor management—and that’s you, bucky. Employees don’t need programs and engagement strategies. They need managers with vision, an understanding that employees want and need to work to the best of their abilities. Employees need managers working together toward a shared strategy for the company, not managers that worry about building individual silos. Employees don’t need to be engaged—managers need to be improved. Employee engagement is about having a well-run enterprise based on consistently applied values. Do that, and engagement follows.

Con: Workers Need a Morale Boost

Employee engagement will hit historic lows in the coming years and cost employers billions in lost productivity—and cost consumers in the form of a more frustrating I-don’t-really-care-about-you customer experience. Employee engagement is directly related to the experience customers desire.

A 2008 Bain Consulting study revealed that 81% of senior leaders believed their organization delivered superior customer service yet only 8% of their customers agreed. The study refers to the problem as a “Customer Service Gap.” Whatever the customer service trouble is called, the root cause is leaders, many of whom have never worked the front lines servicing customers.

This “Great Recession” will widen the gap between the few companies that deliver a consistently good experience and the great majority whose employees are more disengaged than ever and deliver poor service. A Quantum Market Research study revealed that between fall 2007 and fall 2008, nearly one-half of companies surveyed had a decrease in employee engagement scores, measured by an employee’s willingness to put in extra discretionary effort for the good of the business, speak positively about the business to others, and stay loyal to the job.

Think about the variables that make people most productive at work
1. Relationship with the boss
2. Appreciation for doing a good job
3. Stability and confidence that they receive a fair wage

All of the above are put to the test when leaders are more focused on protecting their jobs, making layoffs, and restrategizing on ways to survive, while spewing out pithy statements such as “employees are our greatest asset.”

Should you worry about employee engagement today? Do the math. What if all employees in your company were engaged and willing to give the company 15 minutes of discretionary effort each week? The ROI would astound you and the improved customer experience just might make the difference between surviving the Great Recession and thriving in it.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek,, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments


Employee engagement is one of those areas where a little goes a long way. At one company where I worked, the boss greeted everyone by name. That felt pretty good. It made me feel as if my work was valued.

Do I need a chair massage every Friday? No, but recognition is a great motivator.

I want a boss who has a clear vision for the future, but who isn't afraid to hear when things are going wrong. That doesn't mean that the inmates should be running the asylum, though.


Many corporations have spent the last 20 years doing everything they could to make employees hate them--downsizing, off-shoring, etc. Corporate America needs a change of heart regarding their employees, but I'm not holding my breath. If you really want to change, start by abolishing your employment-at-will clause and all the attitudes it inspires. If you treat employees like throw-aways, they will certainly treat you the same way.


A company meeting was called to allow managers to express their concerns and present a wish list to top management. Subsequently having every concern ignored or devalued because it would cost money, this was clearly communicated. One exception, more rigorous cleaning of the bird droppings on the front lawn--truly motivating. It signalled a new beginning of employee empowerment.


Sounds like both sides are saying much the same thing. Employees will be engaged if they have good management.

Stephanie Halliday Kelly

When will we learn? The pithy soundbyte is fine for a start, but too often it dilutes meaning. Why don't we want to empower our employes anymore? Because "empowering employees" ceased to mean driving responsibility to point of impact and came to mean abandoning performance standards so as to make employees feel safe in taking risks. Employee engagement is heading toward a similar and sad death.

No, this is not the time to invest in "let's be happy" programs, but is there ever such a time? An engaged employee is one who understands what the business is trying to achieve, who the customer is, and how he/she can/should/does affect the result. Yes, leadership matters. Yes, it helps if your manager knows your name-but not just to say "hello" as you pass in the hall. The path to employee engagement is not paved with "morale boosters" nor does it require a massive spend.

Do your employees understand your business? Do they know who your customer is and what that customer needs? Do they know how their work contributes to the success or decline of business results? If they do, then you can be pretty sure they are engaged, delivering that well documented (see the CLC's research on this) return and,in all likelihood, are empowered as well.

George Guajardo

This is an interesting debate, one I hope gathers plenty of attention. I find that I simultaneously agree and disagree with Paul.

The source of my agreement lies with the idea that poor management is a very large contributor to our current economic situation. Fixing that goes a long way toward getting us out of it.

My disagreement stems from the idea that management-focused interventions are also engagement-focused interventions. Employee satisfaction with their managers repeatedly shows up as a major driver (predictor) of employee engagement.

Employee engagement is not a "let's be happy" type of concept, though it draws considerably from employee affective reactions to their supervision, their organization and its leadership. Engagement also draws from employee cognitions to predict exemplary levels of performance. If we can accept that in every sample of employees some will consistently outperform others, then we can accept the idea of engagement.

Is promoting engagement more important than staying solvent? No. Can you stay solvent without engaged employees? Only if none of your competitors have engaged employees.

Derek Irvine, Globoforce

The debaters essentially agree with each other, and I agree with the overarching theme--good managers drive good employee engagement. Just as the old maxim "employees don't leave companies, they leave managers" is true, so is the fact that employees are loyal to and work hard for managers--for people--not monolithic organizations. If you (company exec) want to increase employee engagement, then train your managers to recognize and appreciate their employees for all they do, every day, that helps your company meet its strategic objectives.

David Zinger

Am I missing something here? I thought a manager was an employee. An employee with different roles and functions than other employees but an employee nonetheless. Employee engagement is about managers too.

Rob Fox

Businesses now in a fix need to change. Yet loads of research shows that businesses' change efforts fail; and a key reason they fail is because change is imposed versus implemented--the difference being the level of engagement of people in change.

So, if business wishes to flourish in the future and needs to do this via change, then they also need to work to inspire the engagement of their people as engagement is a critical success factor for more rapid and enduring change

Thank you.


Rob Fox

Businesses now is in a fix need to change. Yet loads of research shows that businesses' change efforts fail, and a key reason they fail is that change is imposed versus implemented--the difference being the level of engagement of people in change.

So, if businesses wish to flourish in the future and need to do this via change, then they also need to work to inspire the engagement of their people as engagement is a critical success factor for more rapid and enduring change

Thank you.


Karen Schmidt

The employees are the business. Without them you would have nothing but very expensive plants and equipment sitting idle.

If the bean counters spent less time trying to find a financial justification for their decisions and more time treating human beings with respect, then the problem would be fixed.

I myself

Employee engagement is determined at the water cooler or on the factory floor. The mob mentality will always doom and gloom through a recession.

Chris Millsap

The problem with framing this as a "choice" is that it suggests the two are mutually exclusive, when, in fact, employee engagement is a "strategy" to enhance bottom-line results. If a company has even one employee, they better understand the impact and implications of motivation. I am a COO by profession and experience. Winning in business is defined by "profit." A profitable company is the only company who can compete futuristically and provide jobs, period. Employees are the means to profitability as they are the ones who do the work to deliver the products and services. Albeit interesting, those who would advance a position that "engagement" of your product and services delivery mechanism as optional must not have run a company and had to make a payroll in the last 10 years. Such a position is tantamount to saying "gas" is optional for vehicles if you're in the business of freight hauling. Simply does not compute.

Alicia Whitaker

I recently saw a survey finding that suggests that 44% of a company's highest performers will jump ship when the economy turns around and they are able to find jobs elsewhere. The implications of this for customer service, innovation, and quality are troubling. If high performers are disengaged and dreaming about greener pastures, then what must the rest of the employee population be feeling?

This is the time to get as many people as possible on board with where the company is going, future prospects for the business, and passion about serving customers better than competitors. Engagement is a business issue, not merely a "happiness factor."

Marianne Paskowski

Well, coming from the world of journalism I have to chuckle, rather roar, about the chatter here.

Media companies look at their editorial staffs as expenses not assets, and the publishers run the show.

Anything to sell an online ad for a nickel. Their print revenues are gone.

These people never heard of employee engagement and couldn't give a flying Walenda about content, the product they are producing and trying to sell but don't know how to do it.

Look at the media sector, not pretty. Personally, I don''t want some a-hole boss to engage me.

I am engaging myself in new ventures, now. And they are not in journalism, sad to say. Nor are my many, now, unemployed journalists.


It's great to argue about who is the best or bad. The tug of war, that no one can win. If the boss is too good, then the employees will take advantage and become lazy. If the boss is too tight, then the employees say he is a ker. It's after all a good relationship from both ends that ends happily.


Good luck running your business when all your employees quit.

Noelle Ibrahim

Definite Con. All that employee engagement requires is a little PR, a smile, and some thought. This is usual a low CAPEX investment with high ROIC. What else are you going to invest in that could have a bigger payoff?

Melissa Cherry

Recognize employees' hard work, pay them right, and treat them with respect. Unhappy Employees = Bad Service and Products. Don't lose sight of how costly turnovers can be.

ABOLISH H-1B/L1 Visas First!

The Labor Department said the number of new jobless claims rose to a seasonally adjusted 637,000, from a revised 605,000 the previous week. Before any rebound can happen, first we must abolish all visas which being used to replace American workers with cheap cheap labor labor. American worker replacement that has been ongoing for 20 years. Let's have a look at the figures from the State Department website today. Visas that are used to place workers from abroad in professional positions include: H-1B, H-1B1, TN, E-3, L-1, and J-1. Total visas issued in these categories from years 1989 through 2008: 7,053,656. This means that, if the visas were used to push Americans out of the job market in the stem fields, the way they are commonly being used today, then up to 7 million US workers have already been forced to leave their professions since 1989 and take other jobs.

Tara @ RB

I have seen both sides of the employee empowerment coin. Like Marianne, I worked in the newspaper industry for years (in the UK) and journalists, editors, designers were never treated as assets.

No one was ever offered a 'thanks for that' or 'great job' or 'thanks for working a 12-hour day.' When I left the newspaper I worked for last year, morale was at rock bottom. Employee engagement wasn't so much a dirty word to them, rather they had just never heard of it.

Now I am working alongside a totally different industry (FMGC giant Reckitt Benckiser) on a consultancy basis and the difference is vast.
New employees are given real responsibility from day one and everyone has a voice--no matter what your level. You are encouraged to share the passion and a sense of purpose to drive results and are rewarded with career growth and recognition.

When you join a company or start your career you want to make a mark and not be forced to sit in a corner slogging your heart out for no recognition. Or your manager only raises their head to notice you when something goes wrong.

At RB they positively encourage the sharing of ideas, successes and differences and there is a high degree of respect amongst colleagues.

I know that if someone, anyone in charge when I was on the newsdesk had just shown a little appreciation when a job was well done, I wouldn't have bolted for the door at the first sign of trouble and left with a real feeling of disillusionment.

Amelia Thornton

Healthy companies understand that employee engagement is a critical component to their success.

When employees are not engaged, more than likely the leadership team is not engaged either.

Engagement happens when four things occur:

1. The Leadership Team is aligned and cohesive
2. There is absolute clarity about organization direction (strategy)
3. Every person in the organization understands how what they do 'fits' with the strategy
4. Organization policies and practices support the above (this does not happen nearly enough)

One of my favorite quotes is from General Norman Schwartzkopf, who I heard speak not long after Desert Storm.

He said: "Great leaders never tell people how to do their jobs. They set the goals and establish the framework. Lousy leaders think they know it all, and all the while, their organizations sit there, aquiver with potential."

Morgan Daloisio

Great comment Amelia. I wholeheartedly agree with your 4 items.

You can't expect employees to deliver a superior (or even decent) experience to customers when their experience as an employee isn't good. Because employees either reinforce or break their employer's brand promise every time they interact with a customer, you can't build and sustain a strong brand externally if you don’t start with your employees, building your brand internally.

Indrid Cold

"Employee Engagement?" Who are you trying to kid?! Is anyone here reading the work being done by the Trend Institute? The fabric of society itself is in danger of being ripped to shreds by the financial mess we are in. We are heading toward a tipping point that will forever change the business climate in this country.

Joe B

I'm a contractor at a very well known financial services company. They have laid off hundreds of Americans at their Phoenix facility and brought in Indians who work for much lower wages. Classy, right? They like my work, but I am underpaid and will leave as soon as I find something better. As an employee for a company I like, I would routinely work 45 to 50 hours a week, sometimes more, and never think about it. I won't work 5 minutes off the clock in this situation or do anything above and beyond. I will also never use their product again, and I am right in their demographic. Nor would I consider becoming a full time employee knowing how they treat people.

Jeff Toister

"Engagement" and "happiness" are usually confused with one another in the engagement discussion. They are closely related, but not synonymous.

Engagement is a necessity in any economy. An engaged employee is actively working in the same direct as the company. He/she is consciously contributing to the organization's goals and objectives. Enlightened managers know the best way to do this is to closely align the employees' interests with the organization's needs. Will this result in a happy employee? Usually, but I'd rather have someone who is grumpy but gets the job done than an employee who is happy but makes little contribution.


As for me, employee engagement will always matter, especially during this time. High profit and productivity of a company will always depend on its workforce. With that, the workforce must first and foremost be given outmost importance. As for the statement "but engagement programs treat the symptom not the disease," prevention will always be better than cure.

Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne

The pro and con arguments are both right. The key to employee engagement is to focus on engaged in what--that's a leadership issue. Measuring employee engagement in employee satisfaction surveys (which in reality most of the employee engagement surveys are) is not going to tell you if employees are engaged in the right work. Direction is important today because the environment is changing quickly and your firm is likely changing direction (or needs to) more often than in the past. If employees are energized and engaged in the "wrong stuff," firm performance will suffer. My take is that it's time to get on with it--we don't even know what employee engagement is (lack of shared definition, in many cases it is defined by the survey of the day), so let's focus on the target: engaged in what to drive firm performance. Then your job is to communicate: get feedback and listen, listen, listen, listen, and communicate again.


This is a great article.


I agree with Liz; it is the same here in the UK.

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