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Broken Engagement? New Survey Reveals Employees Still Not Feeling the Love

Companies may measure it, but shared accountability for engagement remains an exception, not the norm, according to a July global workforce study of 32,000 workers by New York-based consultancy Towers Watson.

July 25, 2012

As an employee-owned company, engagement carries special significance for ITA Group, which helps companies drive employee loyalty through rewards and recognition programs.

"Because of the work we do for customers, it is critical that our own employees be highly engaged. Essentially, we try to eat our own dog food," says Jaimee Chism, employee loyalty practice leader at ITA, based in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Engagement measures an employee's level of commitment and loyalty, Chism says, but that is only half the equation. Putting employees in control of client relationships, including responsibility for customer service, billing and satisfaction metrics, is equally important.

Empowering them to think critically and, when appropriate, respectfully challenge ITA's long-standing practices or policies also drives engagement, Chism says. "Our leadership constantly asks: 'Are we putting people in a position to be successful? Are we enabling them to be engaged?' "

ITA can boast about its engagement levels, but a majority of employees give their organizations a failing grade. Some 63 percent of U.S. workers are not fully engaged. They are wearied by a decade of doing more work with fewer resources and rewards, according to a July global workforce study of 32,000 workers by New York-based consultancy Towers Watson & Co.

Among employees who aren't fully engaged, 43 percent say supervisors don't remove performance obstacles, and only 26 percent believe management involves them in decisions that directly affect them, according to the survey.

Engagement is often broadly defined as an employee's intention to stay or willingness to exert extra effort. Missing from the definition, however, is the concept of shared ownership, says Kevin Sheridan, senior vice president of HR optimization at Avatar HR Solutions Inc., a Chicago-based consulting firm whose clients include ITA Group. He is also the author of Building a Magnetic Culture.

Sheridan says his company is the first to pioneer the idea of shared accountability for engagement. Besides providing tailored engagement surveys, Avatar recently unveiled a Personal Employee Engagement report, or PEER, for employees to monitor their own engagement levels. By answering its 16 questions, an employee receives suggested tips on how to boost engagement. The suggestions are prompted by the employee's survey responses and address aspects of the workplace the employee has indicated show room for improvement.

Companies for years have surveyed engagement and analyzed the findings, dumping responsibility for improvement primarily on managers. "But no one stopped to ask what the employees' role is in all this. That's the ultimate irony: trying to drive employee engagement without ever involving the employees themselves," Sheridan says.

On the flip side, slower-than-anticipated job creation has lulled other organizations into a false sense of security, Sheridan says. "Most companies are way too complacent about engagement. They appear to be resting on the idea that the job market stinks and their employees will stick around."

In fact, companies face a potential exodus of top performers at the slightest glimmer of job growth. Fifty percent of workers who report feeling devalued at work plan to hunt for a new job in the next year, according to an online poll of 1,700 U.S. adults by the American Psychological Association, a trade group in Washington., D.C.

Companies also receive mixed results for their engagement efforts. BlessingWhite Inc., a consulting firm in Princeton, New Jersey, says engagement among North American workers ticked up to 41 percent through the second quarter of 2012, compared with 33 percent in early 2011.

At the same time, BlessingWhite found that one-third of engaged employees do not believe their current employer provides ample opportunities for career growth—widely considered an influential factor in engagement.

"In light of the fact that engagement is a hot topic, one might expect it to be discussed during annual performance reviews. It's not," Sheridan says.

In a recent poll by his company, Sheridan says only 5 percent of 1,000 North American managers acknowledge doing so. "Chief executives are tired of telling managers to build action plans every year. What they're asking now is: 'When does the employee start to accept responsibility for engagement?' "

Garry Kranz is a Workforce Management contributing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

Workforce Management, September 2012, p. 10 -- Subscribe Now!