Employee engagement: the latest HR buzzword

During a recent ‘Beating the recession’ conference I attended, delegates were given the option to attend one of two lunchtime sessions. I chose the ubiquitous employment law update to freshen up on recent legislative changes and case law. However, by a margin of about eight to one, other delegates attended the seminar on employee engagement.

I wondered why I found myself in a sparsely populated room with a few delegates who felt the need to brush up on employment law. My conclusion is that the others couldn’t resist the attraction of the latest HR buzzword.

‘Employee engagement’ is the undisputed king of buzzwords for this decade. I wondered how such a concept, examined and experimented with for generations in fact, has developed such a novel, new attraction to it. Worse, I was concerned that the recent focus on employee engagement suggests that the HR community and business leaders may have taken their eye off the proverbial ball.

In 1864, Jeremiah James Colman (of Colman’s Mustard) built a subsidised school for his employees’ children. In 1868, he built a kitchen so staff could have affordable hot meals; in 1878 he hired a nurse to look after their medical needs – including home visits.

In 1869, the Dublin Guinness Brewery appointed its own medical officer for workers, their families, and even widows and orphans of former workers. In 1870, John and George Cadbury started to build on-site accommodation for their workers, including a village and 370 houses. In 1902, Joseph Rowntree introduced welfare supervisors and a suggestion scheme to improve the personal welfare of employees, as well as the company’s efficiency.

By the 1920’s, the Eastman Kodak Company in the US tried to become a model employer by offering company housing, health insurance, life insurance, profit sharing, employee suggestion schemes, recreation programmes, and retirement bonuses.

In those days there were religious value systems and, in some cases, intense competitive pressure underpinning these initiatives. In general, employee engagement was a less cynical concept than it is today. However, they all had a similar aim – to make employees feel secure, loyal and engaged.

Employee engagement is a hot topic, but it has been hot for more than 100 years.Why, then, is it being presented as something new?

HR practitioners seem to want to know the latest techniques in how to ‘do’ engagement, with some management consultants jumping into a lucrative market on the coat-tails of such a ‘contemporary’ topic. I am reminded of the drive in the US some years ago to monitor cholesterol levels, which I am convinced was all about creating a sub-industry for the medical profession.

Employee engagement is such a hot topic because after ruthless cost-cutting, knee-jerk decisions and general short-term panic during a difficult economic downturn, company leaders want to sweeten up their staff so they don’t run away to other employers once the recession has ended.

If you are thinking about launching an employee engagement programme to make up for the pain and suffering staff have been through during the downturn, you are already too late. So here are my three top employee engagement tips for riding out the storm the next time a recession bites:

  • Think about the long-term effect that every cost-cutting decision you make will have on your internal employer brand. The more dramatic decisions may be avoidable.

  • Err on the side of cutting too little if possible. You won’t look great if you have to come back to cost-cutting, but at least you won’t have to re-hire similar people immediately after the upturn.

  • Most research shows that openness in communication (before, during and after a downturn) has a strong link to positive employee engagement. Next time, be as honest and open as possible.

So employee engagement becomes the cottage industry of the early 21st century. But given its prominence throughout history, why did anyone ever lose sight of it?

by Eric Michels, HR business consultant

Personnel Today Awards 2009:
Shortlisted teams in employee engagement category

Six teams have been shortlisted in the employee engagement category for the Personnel Today Awards. They are: Birmingham City Council, FMG Support, HMP Morton Hall, Royal College of Nursing, Travel London, and TUI UK & Ireland.

To book your place at the awards, call 020 8652 3304 or email: [email protected]

For more information, visit: www.personneltodayawards.com

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