Posted: Marcus Varner | May 16, 2016


Employee Engagement: 5 Reasons Companies Need to Take It Seriously

employee engagement

The numbers have been coming in on employee engagement and things aren't looking pretty.

First off, we have the TINYpulse 2015 Employee Engagement & Organizational Culture Report, which found that almost 70% of employees felt they were falling short of their job responsibilities and only 31% felt strongly valued by their employers.

employee engagement

This lines up with the most recent Gallup Employee Engagement Study, which also discovered that more than half of employees were not engaged at work and 17% considered themselves "actively disengaged."

Perhaps most shocking of all has been businesses' reactions to this phenomenon of falling employee engagement. While there are certainly some forward-thinking companies that are taking it seriously, too many brush it off as "something for HR to worry about." What they fail to realize is that low employee engagement is more than just a case of the blues or just a few people who didn't have the right stuff-it is a real, sometimes fatal threat to companies.

Here are five unignorable reasons companies can't afford to ignore the problem of employee disengagement any longer:

Reason #1: It's companies' fault

employee engagement

Many companies tend to think that a lack of employee engagement is simply a case of bad behavior or lack of motivation. But more and more research suggests that employee disengagement is the product of the culture that companies create within their walls and the ways in which they communicate and manage their work.

According to the TINYpulse report, of those employees who aren't fulfilling, 23% attribute the problem to being busy putting out fires, instead of tending to their primary job duties.

employee engagement

Ten percent blame it on their jobs being "ill-defined."

The Work-Life Imbalance Report from Workfront found that, when asked which aspects of the workplace contribute most to poor work-life balance-a common companion of employee disengagement-60% of employees blamed bad bosses. Tying for second place were "constantly working beyond standard business hours" (39%) and "inflexibility in scheduling work hours" (39%).

The 2015 State of Enterprise Work Report found that the biggest killers of productivity were wasteful meetings (57%), excessive emails (40%), and unexpected phone calls (37%).

At first glance, it's easy to pass these stats off as disgruntled employees shifting the blame to someone else for their underperformance. But if you take second look, these stats also follow a striking pattern: all of the factors named are within companies' power to change and improve.

For example, if employees are regularly spending more time putting out fires than getting to the work they were hired to do, there is a systematic work management problem at work. It could be poor communication or badly drawn work processes, but it's definitely not a personality or motivation problem.

The same is true of vague job duties, difficult managers, chronic overtime, excessive email, and overly rigid work hours. They're not the fault of employees; that honor falls squarely on companies.

Reason #2: Low employee engagement is driving your employees apart

employee engagement

In companies where low employee engagement is rampant, team cohesiveness and performance suffer. Simply put, when employees are unhappy, they tend to turn on each other. And as they turn on one another, their disengagement from work intensifies.

It's no accident, for instance, that employees with low engagement reported a lack of productivity and follow-through from their peers, according to the TINYpulse report.

employee engagement

This is also seen in the State of Enterprise Work Report, in how employees tended to view their co-workers' productivity versus their own. When asked to rate themselves and their co-workers, 81% rated themselves highest in productivity. Only 55% rated their co-workers as high, 53% their managers, 47% their company leadership, and 43% their direct reports.

When employees are disengaged like this, they can't see the contributions that others make. This destroys morale and erodes team unity and trust, as discovered in the Work-Life Imbalance Report: 68% of employees pinpointed poor morale (i.e., employees resentful of each other and/or management) as the single biggest consequence of bad work-life balance.

This breakdown of morale and team unity, in turn, has a direct effect on a company's ability to compete in the marketplace...

Reason #3: Low employee engagement kills productivity, efficiency and competitiveness

employee engagement

This is the reason that is bound to catch the attention of most business leaders. Employee engagement is directly linked to how much value employees will produce. One happy, engaged employee might produce five times more value than a disengaged one.

"Engaged employees are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work," explains Amy Adkins at Gallup. "Engaged employees support the innovation, growth and revenue that their companies need."

Consider, for a moment, what this means in a business environment that more competitive and crowded than ever before. On an assembly line, engaged employees are going to pump out more widgets than the next, disengaged worker. In more knowledge work roles, engaged employees are more proactive and more likely to produce the "next big thing" that will give their company an edge in the market.

But what about disengaged employees? Adkins explains:

"These employees are not hostile or disruptive. They show up and kill time, doing the minimum required with little extra effort to go out of their way for customers. They are less vigilant, more likely to miss work and change jobs when new opportunities arise. They are thinking about lunch or their next break."

The Work-Life Imbalance Report found the same direct connection between unhappy employees and poor business results: 41% said disengagement created poor productivity (e.g., employees working longer hours but not accomplishing more).

Reason #4: Low employee engagement is costing companies in recruiting dollars

employee engagement

Recruiting is not cheap. You would expect the cost to be higher in knowledge industries like medical and technology, and it is. Hiring in some industries can be tens of thousands of dollars per person for some technology or government positions. But even in manufacturing, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, the cost to recruit an employee averages $5,159.

This means that, regardless of what industry you're in, losing employees who you've paid thousands to recruit should scare you.

Unfortunately, this is one of the most direct results of low employee engagement. The Work-Life Imbalance Report uncovered that 41% of employees blamed poor work-life balance for burnout and turnover. The TINYpulse report found that nearly 1 in 4 employees would quit if offered a 10% raise elsewhere.

And why are they so willing to jump ship? The TINYpulse report found that 75% of employees felt they didn't have professional growth opportunities with their current employers.

employee engagement

With numbers this high, companies that neglect the subject of employee engagement can expect to recruit and hire more often. But rest assured, the cost per recruit is not likely to go down anytime soon.

Reason #5: Companies can reverse low employee engagement

Yes, there is some good news here, at least for those companies who willing to make some changes to the way they manage and communicate and the cultures they create within their walls.

As mentioned above, the majority of disengaged employees aren't this way simply because they are unpleasant or lazy individuals. While revealing how widespread this problem, the research on this topic also sheds light on what companies can do to reverse the this trend.

Stop Siloing

employee engagement

To better understand what was keeping employees from feeling like they had professional growth opportunities, The TINYpulse report asked these employees to name the top reasons. The #1 most commonly cited reason was: "Feel too siloed and/or not given new projects."

The third was: "Have background/skills not being used."

employee engagement

This indicates a flaw in how employees are being managed, and it's also a professional development problem.

How companies can change: If employees are feeling hemmed into doing work that takes advantage of only a small part of their expertise, it's time to take stock of each employee's capabilities and skills and then take redistribute assignments accordingly.

If employees aren't getting new projects, managers need to understand why. Is the employee incapable? Is it the result of a personal conflict? If the employee is incapable, perhaps training or some intervention is in order. If an individual isn't getting new projects because of interpersonal issues, an intervention is definitely in order.

Start Talking About It

employee engagement

Underlying the whole conversation around employee engagement is the fact that most companies don't talk about. In the TINYpulse report, the second most common reason for lack of professional growth was: "No open discussion of career opportunities."

This is problem comes from the "put up and shut up" mentality in many workplaces. Employees are seen as widgets to be plugged into a specific place in the machine. Where that employee goes next in their career is no concern of the company. So managers, directors, and executives don't talk about it, and they definitely don't talk to employees about it.

Sadly, they avoid talking about pretty much all employee engagement issues.

How companies can change: Conversations about employee engagement need to start at the top and then go all the way down to individual one-on-one conversations employees and their managers.

Adkins comments:

"Organizations have to approach employee engagement as an ongoing human capital strategy and consider all of the elements that matter in performance management -- from leadership accountability and manager education to clear role expectations and employee development opportunities."

Managers need to be fully aware of their team members' career goals and then develop plans with them of how the company can help them develop toward those goals.

Each director needs to actively promote an awareness of employee engagement with his direct reports.

Executives need to communicate clearly that employee engagement is a top priority for the organization-and then they need to back it up with action.

Shake Up Your Policies

employee engagement

Are your company rules and policies killing employee engagement? In the Work-Life Imbalance Report, when employees were asked what employers could do to improve worker happiness and satisfaction:

  • 69% recommended offering flexible work schedules
  • 55% suggested allowing employees to work remotely
  • 27% recommended unlimited paid time off

For the typical company, trying to implement any one of these-or any number of other revolutionary-ideas could be a huge undertaking. While I'm not tossing out flexible work schedules, remote working, or unlimited PTO as a silver bullet for all of your employee engagement problems, I am saying that companies would do well to take a fresh look at their policies.

How companies can change: With each company, ask some tough questions. Will this policy encourage or hurt employee engagement? How can I change it to foster engagement? Could I replace it with a best practice with which other companies have found success? Whatever you do, don't be afraid to shake things up in a big way. It might prove to be just the kick in the pants your organization needs.

Renovate Your Tools and Processes

employee engagement

Sometimes the very tools and processes we put in place to help us work better actually hurt employee engagement. For instance, managers sometimes encourage higher-ups to drop in on their team when they have questions. While this might seem like a nice political move, it can create frustrating interruptions and fire drills that kill employee engagement.

Another example is the practice of using email to organize all of your work. This might seem like the thing to do, if only because "it's the way that everyone does it" and it's cheap. But it also makes it hard to see who is working on what, who said what, and what's coming up next.

And no process is just as bad as a broken process. When employees have to guess at what to do next or what's going to happen next, discouragement is the result-and that discouragement quickly builds into full-blown disengagement.

What companies can change: Start by re-evaluating the tools and processes you use. Do these tools empower employees to know what's happening and do their jobs better? Or do they get in employees' way or leave them confused and uninformed?

Then it's time to renovate your tools and processes. Remake processes to help employees work better and feel aligned with the rest of the team and the company.

Toss out tools that stymie employee engagement. Yes, there are some great tools out there that improve communication between employees and managers and facilitate better work processes. With a little research, you can find a host of good replacements for your existing tools.

More Engaged Employees = More Competitive Companies

Ultimately, the battle for better employee engagement is not merely another touchy-feely HR initiative-it's a fight for the effectiveness of a company. When employees are engaged, more work gets done. Work is done better. Innovation becomes more common. Talent sticks around longer and employees become truly loyal. Ultimately, these companies gain an undeniable competitive advantage over those companies where disengagement is the norm.


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Written by Marcus Varner

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