Monday, October 27, 2008

A New Paradigm For Employee Engagement: Part I

Fear has become the catalyst for engagement and retention.

As headlines scream layoffs and unemployment numbers spiral ever higher, fear grows like weeds among senior employees as anxiety about keeping their jobs builds daily. Couple this with a declining economy resulting in fewer new jobs and it's no wonder that those still employed are riding emotional roller coasters.

Short-term relief, long-term pessimism and daily uncertainty are now motivating many of today's executives.

Retention, so recently the hot button issue among the corporate hierarchy is no longer part of the dialogue. Concern about losing key people doesn't have the same urgency when the ranks of available executives in the marketplace continues to swell.

Executives are engaged all right, but they’re engaged out of fear. They know that layoffs across all levels, sectors and industries will continue and they don't want to be next.

Short-sightedness rules the day

In this environment, employee satisfaction has been trumped by shareholder wrath.

With the outlook for profits in 2009 appearing dismal, many companies are reducing or entirely eliminating employee development programs for their current workforce. Balance sheets and budgets rule all decision-making. Employee engagement initiatives have been relegated to the discretionary and seemingly unnecessary expenses column.

While such draconian measures may be required for companies' short-term fiscal health, what happens in the long run when the primary factor driving employee engagement is fear?

I’ve witnessed companies, during past cost-cutting sprees, shred the programs that exhibited their commitment to employees. And I’ve seen employees' reactions when they're forced to undertake increased workloads along with decreased benefits. As anyone who has ever been in that position can confirm, it's not the optimal formula for an engaged, productive workforce.

While it's true that fear can be a motivator and undoubtedly keeps employees from roaming, there is a significant downside. Fear does not instill loyalty. Fearful employees do not have their employer’s best interests at heart and probably never will. Fear is rarely a formula for ongoing success.

Get ahead of the curve

Think ... and act long term.

Employees, executives included, have much to be concerned about. For many, their personal wealth has declined in tandem with the job market and options are fewer. So while their current fear may keep them bonded to their companies and willing to do whatever it takes to keep their jobs, it’s not the kind of glue that sticks.

Eventually this crisis will pass and once again the cry will go out for increasing engagement among employees and improving retention. When that time comes and the “hammer” passes from the employer back to the employee, companies can find themselves reaping the "rewards" of their neglected workforce.

Key employees can ... and do ... jump ship once the lifeboats return.

Nothing is as constant as change

Those companies that have done best by their people during a downturn will be the quickest to prosper and hold onto valued employees when the tide turns ... which it eventually will.

Conversely, those companies that have ignored critical concerns and dismissed the fear prevalent in the workforce are not planning for success in a future turnaround. Even with present budgetary restraints, costs associated with ensuring positive employee engagement are minimal.

Given how many dollars are spent on exiting employees, one wonders why companies choose to neglect those still with them.

It could be, that they're - penny wise and pound foolish.

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