Why Employee Engagement is Upside Down

Leaders and managers frequently refer to the famous Albert Einstein quote when something in their organizations isn’t working after repeated efforts. I wonder what Einstein would say about employee engagement?

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

For two decades, the benchmark of benchmarks for employee engagement is Gallup, a world-class research organization. In the past 10 years, the percentage of engaged employees in Gallup’s research has fluctuated. From a low of 30% to a high of 36%.

Much ado was made about the uptick in engagement over the past decade before the pandemic reversed the direction of the numbers.

I’m pretty sure Einstein would agree with my old boss at Cisco. Former CEO John Chambers, who famously described missed expectations at Cisco as:

I never get hard work confused with results.

Moving up just six percentage points over a decade. From such a low number to begin with, is indeed a lot of “hard work” and little enduring results.

The Decline of Engaged Employees

The most recent 2022 Gallup numbers show the percent of employees engaged is down.  U.S. companies are down 32%. It was 30% in 2002 and 2012.

I’m not sure how many billions of dollars were spent on employee engagement measurement and programs during this time, but it is clear from this data it was not a productive investment.

The inertia reflected in the engagement data reflects what I’ve heard over the past three years talking to hundreds of HR leaders about what works and what doesn’t in employee engagement.

Most of the feedback is best paraphrased as:

We are not learning anything new from our employee engagement data.

Competition vs Collaboration

I’ve been lucky to work with hundreds of companies and their leadership teams. Especially after I wrote The Collaboration Imperative, which shared the best practices used at Cisco in its transition from a culture based on internal competition to one based on internal collaboration.

From these listening sessions, I’ve come to believe that certain ideas exist in organizational thinking in the absence of hard evidence. I don’t know how these ideas got started. I just know the ideas are entrenched.

For example – the way leaders and managers think about employee engagement today. It reminds me of the way organizations think about career planning. That it is the responsibility of the employee, despite overwhelming evidence indicating a different reality.

If it is true that employees are responsible for their own careers, why is “my manager” the most cited reason when an employee leaves a company?

Employee Engagement is Upside Down

I want to eat my own dog food by starting with evidence. I’ve spent the pandemic sponsoring a large, real-world research study on what makes an employee want to stay at a company. I wanted to know what it would take to get an employee to recommend where they work.

Our primary research and the large collection of company data captured in the second phase of our research confirm we’ve been measuring the wrong things in employee engagement.

In fact, employee engagement is upside down, according to our research.

Instead of measuring how engaged employees are, we should be measuring how engaged leaders and managers are.

In statistical terms, our evidence-based model demonstrated a strong, positive linear relationship between the degree to which leaders and managers engage employees and the willingness of employees to recommend where they work. In other words, the more engaged leaders and managers are in creating organizational culture with their teams, the greater the likelihood of an employee recommending the employer. Our research conclusions have a 95% confidence interval.

The Impact Leaders Have on Employee Engagement

Just like career planning. It’s time to embrace the fact that leaders and managers are the reasons why people fall in love with a company and its culture — or not. Leaders create the global cultural values of an organization; managers implement those values locally.

Company values are based on human behavior, not a poster on the wall. Values-based behaviors start with role-modeling them as leaders and managers. How can we expect employees to be engaged if their management team isn’t?

If we’re going to innovate in how we think about employee engagement, I want to call upon Einstein again for help.

Einstein was famous for thought experiments.

Here’s one. Management guru Peter Drucker said you can only manage what you measure. What if leaders and managers were accountable for engagement?

What would happen to employee engagement?

4 Steps to Hit the Mark for Open Enrollment

Is the benefits information you have to tell employees important before and during Open Enrollment? You bet! Easily understood? Not always. 

According to the latest MetLife employee benefits trends, close to 90% of employers believe their benefits are clear and easy to understand. Yet only 65% of employees (only 56% Gen Z) agree. 

Uncomplicating the complicated is not an easy task, but it’s well worth the effort. Employees who better understand their benefits are ones who better appreciate the benefits they have. 

Let’s look at 4 steps to help supercharge your Open Enrollment communications strategy.

Step 1: Know Your Audience

For HR, this means not just thinking about employees. Think like employees. Heck, you are an employee.

When Open Enrollment season hits, chances are you’ll be making some decisions about your benefits. Just like all the other employees. What (and who) are you thinking about when you’re comparing options? Your family? Your health? The costs? The coverage? Yep…just like all the other employees.

If you can hold on to that “employee to employee” connection when you’re communicating to them about benefits, you’re more likely to create understandable, compelling communications. Make your messages relatable and relevant, with a hint of emotion.

Relatable – We’re all people. We can empathize with each other. Remember this when you communicate to employees. Make an emotional connection. That’s how you get employees to engage.

What does that mean? For example, many employees have families they love, and so do you. And you all want the best benefits you can get for them. Relay that feeling.

Relevant – Present information from the employees’ points of view, not the company’s. Avoid touting your company’s awesomeness (“We’ve added a great new dental plan”). Talk more about why it matters to them (“You have more dentists to choose from in the new plan”). Instead of saying, “We have a new enrollment system,” say, “You can enroll faster and easier with our new enrollment system.”

Keep the message conversational, too. If you were talking to a colleague, how would you get your message across? Probably not in a verbose, run-on sentence with oodles of detail. 

Step 2: Plan Bite-Size Information

If you’re sending a firehose flow of information two weeks prior to Open Enrollment, employees will not absorb everything you’re telling them. Try starting communications about six to eight weeks prior to your OE start date, especially if you’re making major changes

Strive for a slow drip campaign that feeds bite-size bits of information. A sample campaign for a late October enrollment may look like this…

Late August

  • Teaser/kick-off announcements
  • Watch for what’s to come messaging
  • Training webinar for leaders and HR partners

September

  • Weekly or bi-weekly communications with chunks of information
  • Home mailer with highlights and a few important details
  • Portal/website or interactive guide with a deeper dive into info, tools, and resources

Mid-October

  • Meetings, webinars, and benefits sessions
  • Displays for enrollment to-do’s and timing
  • Weekly reminders to enroll (first day, one week left, last day)

To get the word out, a wide variety of channels is best. But when it comes to education, a Colonial Life Employee Enrollment Survey (via Unum) shows how employees rank their three top choices: benefits portal or website, in-person counseling session, or printed materials.

Step 3: Stay on Point!

When you start crafting your Open Enrollment communications this year, remember that employees:

  • Check their phones 150 times a day
  • Check email 30 times an hour
  • And are still trying to do their jobs

Competition for their attention is fierce. How do you break through the distractions, buzzing and beeping all around them? 

Diligently.

You must spend time considering the message you’re putting out there. Is it going to drive the results you’re hoping for? The key is to build messaging super-focused on achieving that objective. Avoid filling headspace or airwaves with any other content — stick to information employees need to know to make the decision at hand.

Also, our brains don’t want to work hard at processing information. Keep content easy-to-read and scannable. 

  • Short sentences (14 words or less)
  • Short paragraphs (3 sentences or less) 
  • Eighth-grade reading level
  • “Chunked-out” content with subheads (bite-size)
  • Lots of “you” and “your” and less “we”
  • Human language — no acronyms and other benefit geek speak

Don’t be afraid to use phrases and incomplete sentences. No, really. (See what we did there?) It goes against everything you learned in grammar class but write like you talk. Employees will trust it more, as they read it like a conversation.

One last trick — after you’ve created your first draft, cut the amount of text in half. Get rid of any sentences that are repetitive or words that don’t help employees understand your message.

It may be interesting, amusing, or truly relevant, but if it’s not essential, it’s just brain clutter.

Step 4: Don’t Bury the Bad News

They may not like bad news — but they’ll like it even less when they find it hidden among other news. Employees are adults. They can adapt to change if you’re upfront, honest, and help them through it.

Rip off the band-aid. Give them the “why” of the situation through consistent and continuous communications.

  • Tell the same story, the same way, and tell it often
  • Provide a specific date when they’ll know more
  • Be honest and open (or transparent if you speak HR)

Are rates increasing? Probably because the company’s costs keep increasing. Explain that to employees. “U.S. health care costs are expected to rise 10-15 percent this year, but we’re keeping your increase lower, at only 6 percent.”

It’s Time to Change Things Up

HR professionals tend to be criticized for overexplaining and using confusing terms that make benefits hard to understand. We know why that happens, and we get it. 

Put in the work now so you can achieve effective, results-generating communications. Communications that have higher employee engagement. But put yourself in employee shoes when you communicate. Wait…you’re wearing employee shoes.

Burnout

By the Numbers: Employee Burnout, Workplace Discrimination, and the Great Resignation

Sometimes research emerges that sets a new high-water mark on a troubling trend — and it’s well worth paying attention to. That’s the case with the recent Work and Well-Being Survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) of 1,501 U.S. adult workers. Conducted in 2021, it remains extremely relevant to where we are now. 

The survey reveals a strong connection between stress, burnout, workplace discrimination, and the Great Resignation. If that sounds like a topic you should know more about, we heartily agree. We also think that the fact that the research was conducted outside an HR-centric organization actually makes it all the more valuable for those of us in HR — particularly leadership.

The Bottom Line of Burnout

Here’s the bottom line: employee burnout is undeniably high. It’s clearly a major factor in the Great Resignation. It’s also affecting employees unequally: discrimination is a thru-line there. We took a closer look at some of the survey’s most telling statistics to see how we’re doing. As you look for strategies to stave off employee departures and reduce workplace-related stress, these are numbers (and issues) you need to keep in mind.

Burnout is at an All-Time High, Regardless of Profession

  • 79% of employees across all professions reported work-related stress. 
  • Nearly 3 in 5 employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy at work. 
  • 36% reported cognitive weariness.
  • 32% reported emotional exhaustion
  • 44% reported physical fatigue — a 38% increase since 2019.

Burnout is a Key Factor in the Great Resignation

There’s a clear association between day-to-day workplace stress and the likelihood they will look for a new job somewhere else, and soon:

  • 71% reported feeling typically stressed out or tense during their workday.
  • Only 20% reported they didn’t feel that way.
  • Those who report feeling tense or stressed out during the workday are over 3X more likely to seek employment somewhere else in the next year.

Workplace Discrimination

It’s not only stressful, but employees are also sick and tired of it — and it’s making them seek employment elsewhere:

  • 68% of those who say they have experienced or witnessed discrimination in their current workplace plan to look for a job outside of their organization in the next year. 
  • Only 33% of those who say they did not experience or witness discrimination in their current workplace plan to look for a job outside of their organization in the next year. 

The Breakdown is Telling

Black and Hispanic:

  • 31% of Black and Hispanic employees say they have been the target of discrimination in their workplace in the last year. 
  • 20% of White employees say they have been the target of discrimination in their workplace in the last year. 
  • 58% of Hispanic and 57% of Black employees plan to look for a job outside of their organization in the next year. 
  • 37% of White employees plan to look for a job outside of their organization in the next year. 

LGBTQ+:

  • 32% of LGBTQ+ employees say they have been the target of discrimination in their workplace in the last year.
  • 23% of non- LGBTQ+ employees say they have been the target of discrimination in their workplace in the last year.
  • 56% of LGBTQ+ employees plan to look for a job outside of their organization in the next year. 
  • 43% of non-LGBTQ+ employees plan to look for a job outside of their organization in the next year. 

People with Disabilities:

  • 47% of people with disabilities say they have been the target of discrimination in their workplace in the last year.
  • 19% of people without a disability say they have been the target of discrimination in their workplace in the last year.
  • 63% of people with disabilities plan to look for a job outside of their organization in the next year. 
  • 41% of people without a disability plan to look for a job outside of their organization in the next year. 

Women and Burnout

What’s not in here: how women are faring. Women’s experience with workplace burnout is its own topic, and we’ll be covering it. There are also plenty of other factors contributing to the soaring rates of workplace stress, from overwork to not enough paid leave, to low compensation to being left out of decision-making. Look for our coverage of those as well in the coming months. (In the meantime, please read here for more on the connection between employee responses to the pandemic and workplace stress — an uneasy and ongoing relationship. And for an interesting take on overcoming burnout pre-pandemic, check out this great #WorkTrends podcast we did with a public schools counselor turned go-to executive coach. — her wisdom still holds true.)

Final Thoughts

The numbers we’ve included here paint a clear picture — and as we look for a special sauce that will slow down voluntary quits, it’s time to get back to basics. The importance of an inclusive workplace where everyone feels like they belong is inarguable — and the APA’s stats should prompt a serious re-think. Once again, kudos to them for doing such a well-considered, diligent deep dive into this important workplace topic.