A recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that employee engagement is the number one concern of HR executives. Research by the Corporate Leadership Council (CLC) indicated that 70 percent of business leaders believe that employee engagement is critical to achieving their business objectives. There is reason for concern as a June 2011 Mercer study revealed that "half of all U.S. employees are really unhappy." 

Employee engagement: A top concern for company leaders

Connect-June2011-3-meeting.jpgA recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that employee engagement is the number one concern of HR executives. Research by the Corporate Leadership Council (CLC) indicated that 70 percent of business leaders believe that employee engagement is critical to achieving their business objectives. There is reason for concern as a June 2011 Mercer study revealed that "half of all U.S. employees are really unhappy."

While high unemployment rates and the tough economy may keep some employees from jumping ship, business and HR leaders fear that employees might leave when the job market opens up. Industry expert Sarah R. Johnson, Ph.D., a practice leader for CLC Genesee and the HR Leadership Council, concurs.

"Because of the business environment we're in and the soft job market," she says, "employees simply have fewer alternatives. But when the economy picks up, we could see an exodus of workers who will take with them the skills and corporate knowledge that keep your business vital. And let's not forget that high-potential employees always have alternatives even in a down job market. You must engage your 'stars' in a meaningful way because these are precisely the people you don't want to lose."

Current trends in employee engagement
CLC Genesee and HR Leadership Council research indicates that the companies with the highest levels of employee engagement tend to either hold steady or improve even during an economic downturn. "We see that successful companies have continually focused on employee engagement throughout these tough years. Company leaders who are thoughtful about driving change report that engaged employees are more resilient, and organizations with high levels of engagement find that their employees are better able to deal with change," Johnson says. "By building resilience and vitality you create a workforce that is better prepared for success."

"The challenging business environment has not been kind to employee engagement," Johnson says. "Across industries and throughout organizations of every size, companies have been forced to take difficult actions. They've had to downsize, lay off employees and restructure. They've cut benefit and compensation programs. All of these actions have had a negative influence on employee engagement levels overall, and trends show steady declines over the last couple of years. But this doesn't mean that nothing can be done."

Can a disengaged employee be reengaged?
"A disengaged employee can absolutely be reengaged," Johnson says. "And in order for the employee to commit to the organization, the organization must commit to the employee as well. It's like any other relationship, really: it's a two-way commitment. Just as in our personal relationships, if all you do is give and get nothing in return -- well, that doesn't feel very satisfying, does it? So take action to repair the relationship before it is irretrievably broken."

Johnson offers a caution to business leaders. "Do not fall into the trap of thinking that engagement is exclusively an HR issue. It's not. It is a business issue because it directly affects productivity and growth. Diane Cothran, my colleague at Ceridian, has strong feelings about this topic. We agree that if HR is the sole cheerleader for employee engagement, a company can never reap its full value."

Best practices for successful employee engagement
"Employee engagement starts at the top," Johnson says. "In companies with strong engagement, we see a CEO who is committed and firmly believes in the value of employee engagement for the organization's bottom line. When the CEO holds leadership accountable for acting to strengthen engagement, managers can make that connection with employees."

It's important to know what your employees want. "Employees want confidence in the future of your organization," Johnson says. "They want to feel good about the prospects for success. They want to trust in business leadership, and they want to feel as if they are contributing something important to the company's success. They want to feel as if they have a future with the company, and they look for evidence that you are investing in them and helping them progress. Employees want to do interesting, challenging work that makes a difference. People want to be engaged. Give them the opportunity to do their best for you."

Taking action
To learn more about best practices for employee engagement and HR management, Johnson recommends the HR Leadership Council and CLC Genesee for more information.