Engagement is top HR priority to retain talent in economic upturn

HR directors have pledged to tackle the ‘dead wood’ in their organisations and prioritise engagement to stop talented staff leaving as soon as the upturn comes.

Neil Roden, group HR director at RBS, admitted there were already disillusioned people at the bank who were ready to leave once the job market recovered, but said his HR function was now looking at how to motivate them to stay and work more productively.

“The real challenge is how do you deal with people who have basically resigned but are still at their desks – that’s what we are looking at,” he told delegates at the Economist’s Talent Management Conference. “We are looking at non-financial rewards and recognition, which is very important to people in this environment. But one of the most important things is communication.”

His comments come as a survey of engagement during the recession, published by employee engagement consultancy IPA last week, revealed one-third of employers felt engagement had dropped during the recession, while one in 10 planned to cut spending on engagement programmes and staff surveys.

Nita Clarke, director of IPA, told Personnel Today employers that cut back on engagement during the recession risked sending a signal to staff that they are a “disposable asset”.

She said: “I would strongly urge those thinking about cutting their spending to not look just at the short term. There’s a real danger that if companies don’t engage with their people now, they will just leave when the upturn comes.”

Tanith Dodge, director of HR at Marks & Spencer, added her function was prioritising communication as a cost-effective way to stop people feeling under-appreciated and wanting to leave.

She said: “If you haven’t invested in people, they will be the first ones that look for other opportunities. There’s a lot you can do that you don’t need to spend a lot of money on. Communication is so important. Employees just want the truth and straight, honest communication.”

Penny de Valk, chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management, warned a failure to prioritise staff engagement could prove costly in the long-term.

“All organisations need to get more from less in the current environment, and this requires staff going the extra mile,” she said. “This level of commitment will only be realised through active employee engagement.”

HR directors’ comments:

“It’s very easy to take talent for granted and not engage them because they won’t move anywhere at the moment. But there’s a danger that you can abuse that privilege and not engage people, and they will leave, and then that wastes the talent management you have done. People work for people, and people leave because of people. Companies just need to be a bit more creative in what they do to engage people – a thank you costs nothing but can really engage someone.”
Nigel Sullivan, group HR director, Wincanton

“We need to be looking after the people who could be attracted externally. When this situation ends, people will remember how you treated them at this time.”
Sonia Wolsey-Cooper, group HR director, Axa UK

“What we will see coming out of this recession is increased mobility in the workforce, and we will get caught unawares if we don’t recognise this and that we need to engage with our workforces.”
Peter Cheese, managing partner, Accenture human performance service

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