Leaders’ Guide to Ethical Employee Engagement

This month’s topic is the dark side of employee engagement. For the last several years, organizational researchers have been promoting the advantage of having engaged employees, and the loss to productivity, competitiveness and customer service when employees are disengaged. We have surveys to measure engagement and HR-driven programs to increase engagement.

One oft-used measure of employee engagement is how much discretionary time an employee is willing to give to the pursuit of the organization’s goals. Similarly, a fully engaged employee looks beyond their current limited responsibilities and thinks about new ways to contribute to the bottom line. He or she might even feel like an owner.  Engagement is about an internal commitment and an emotional tie that goes beyond simply working to collect a paycheque.

So what’s the problem? In recessionary times, you or someone you know is likely to suffer a job loss because of restructuring or downsizing. What you may not already know, is that the suffering and emotional trauma of job termination is exasperated when a person is one of those fully engaged employees.  When I coach people who have given their heart to their organization, the shock and betrayal they experience is no small matter.  However generous their previous employer’s financial settlement, they often lose months – even years – trying to recover emotionally. The word that comes to mind? Jilted.

So, what’s an ethical leader to do about it? Your goal is to make them love their chance to contribute, not fall in love with the company. You still want employees who care a lot about their jobs, the company’s goals and doing their best. Here are some ways to get all of that without creating an emotional dependency that is debilitating at termination.

  1. Don’t use artificial means to create engagement. In other words, don’t create mushy-gushy events or esprit de corps outings. Team-building, at its best use, is about learning to synchronize diverse talents so a group can become integrated in the pursuit of a real goal. It’s not about creating a false sense of companionship, love and family. It’s not about getting people so relaxed they share personal and intimate things they might regret later.  There is nothing as sad as someone shakily packing up the “weekend at Bernie’s canoe challenge” team photo on their last day at work.
  2. Instead, create engagement in the job day-to-day. This is done by increasing the level of transparency about the work. Share more information than you might normally – to build context and a high level of interest. Create lots of information channels and flood them.  Encourage a workplace where people are allowed to be curious about what others are doing. Discourage a “get out of my sandbox” mentality. Encourage employees to seek out diverse perspectives and to invite others to brainstorm company problems. Make more time for questions.  Designate the normal work day as the appropriate time to dive deep into what the business is all about.
  3. Invest in training and development that is job related. When someone is interested in becoming more technically proficient, support that. Offer advanced computer training. Send people to the annual industry conference, and when they return have them present to the team what they learned. This is different than sending them to the conference to showcase the company – it shifts the focus from corporate PR to their development as a professional.
  4. Insist that their personal life is as important as what the company is doing.  Many studies show that employees who balance their work lives with other pursuits are more productive, creative and healthy. A good leader gets concerned when someone is working too hard for too long. Before the job becomes a sacrifice, and your employee a martyr for the company, step in and offer relief. Explain that commitment and burnout are not synonymous. Make vacation days and days-off mandatory. Create no-contact periods each day, so people can turn off the smart-phone and connect with their friends and family. The message is, “We want to be important to you, but we don’t want to be your everything.”
  5. Support your employee’s chosen charities. Many companies are involved in socially responsible causes. Some companies combine their chosen charity with teambuilding events (see point 1). Instead, let each employee pick the cause that has meaning to them. Support it financially, like through a matching grant program. Better yet, give a number of days a year to employees so they can volunteer.
  6. Encourage social clubs. Let employees plan their own events and get togethers. Encourage baseball and bowling teams. These friends at work create higher satisfaction (Gallup organization said “I have a best friend at work” is an indicator) and good collaboration. It is personal friendships that may provide the most support after a job  termination. Don’t be persuaded to take over the event and make it a company-sponsored thing. Even if you sponsor it financially, go light on the company logos and name on the trophy. This changes generosity to PR. It’s enough that you gave the avenue for the friendships to form.
  7. In the same vein, create friendly workspaces and areas where people can congregate and chat. People are naturally social beings and so they will tend to come together organically if you have a comfortable coffee-station and a stone walking-path around your building. Include current trade magazines and a monitor with business channels, and you encourage more interest and conversation about the business.

These kinds of measures will create a friendly, accessible work place where people’s natural curiousity and drive can boost their engagement. At the same time, you can rest assured that you have done your part to establish healthy boundaries that create a realistic employer-employee relationship.