The Engagement Challenge for 2014

With surveys suggesting employees are feeling more confident in their ability to find a new job this year, HR must be prepared to do more to hold on to them.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014
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It's 2014 -- do you know what's on the minds of your organization's employees? Judging from recent surveys, getting a pay raise and/or looking for a new job rank high on the list. Experts say it's more important than ever for HR leaders to focus on employee engagement and ensure their company isn't inadvertently pushing talent away.

Landing a new job appears to be at the top of most New Year's resolutions this year -- 57 percent of working Americans say they plan to look for a better position in 2014, according to a recent survey by Korn Ferry International. The survey also found that 66 percent of those now employed are optimistic about the 2014 jobs outlook. The top factors driving those seeking new, the survey found, include more money (48 percent), career advancement (27 percent) and boredom/job distaste (9 percent). Slightly more than half (54 percent) of the 400 employed U.S. workers  surveyed said they'd be willing to work for less money for a more- fulfilling job.

"The sentiment within the labor market is more optimistic than it was at this time last year," says Korn Ferry CEO Gary D. Burnison. "The winning companies will be those that can find, retain and develop outperforming leaders in a slow-growth economy."

A recent Employment Confidence Survey conducted by Sausalito, Calif.-based Glassdoor finds that approximately one in three employees (32 percent) say obtaining a pay raise will be among their top work-related resolutions for this year, along with looking for a new job (22 percent) and developing leadership skills (20 percent). Survey respondents also indicated they're more likely to take it easy this year: One in five (20 percent) plan to take or use all the vacation days they have earned, up 7 percentage points from last year's survey, according to Glassdoor.

Approximately one in three (32 percent) employees say they will consider job hunting in less than a year, according to the survey.

"If economic and business news continues to show signs of furthering stability, we will undoubtedly begin to see greater employee confidence, which will in turn catalyze more movement within the employment pool," says Rusty Rueff, Glassdoor's career and workplace adviser.

When it comes to improving their career marketability, the survey finds, 67 percent of workers intend to work on improving their physical appearance via diet, exercise and/or new professional attire. Facebook is the most popular social-networking medium among respondents for job searching (38 percent), followed by LinkedIn (33 percent) and "other" at 23 percent.

The Glassdoor survey was conducted by Harris Interactive.

Better times tend to reveal managers whose styles have alienated employees, says Atlanta-based management consultant Aubrey Daniels, author of the best-selling book Performance Management: Changing Behavior That Drives Organizational Effectiveness.

"There's a famous line by Warren Buffett: 'You find out who's been swimming naked when the tide goes out,' " he says. "Many managers who thought they could take advantage of people when times were tough are going to find out the hard way that when better opportunities come around, people will flee."

Although it may seem counter-intuitive these days, many organizations continue to rely on a command-and-control structure that can stifle discretionary effort while encouraging managers to treat employees as if they are interchangeable parts, says Daniels.

"You'd think younger managers wouldn't behave in this 'I'm the boss, I'll tell you what to think' mode, but they tend to model the behavior of the people who promoted them," he says. "Organizational cultures tend to change slowly, even in the face of evidence that suggests they need to change."

The five most important things HR leaders can do to maximize employee engagement in 2014 include designing jobs with growth opportunities, closely monitoring job satisfaction, maximizing "employee embeddedness," managing early interactions and developing great leaders, says Nancy Martini, CEO of PI Worldwide, a Boston-based employee-assessment firm.

Martini defines employee embeddedness as the connection an employee feels to her co-workers and managers and the extent to which she feels her skills are being utilized by the organization.

"It's whether a person feels like their talents are actually being tapped on a regular basis or whether they're just showing up and trying to make it through the day," she says. It also refers to the "richness of the personal relationships between employees and their manager and with their coworkers."

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Surveys and workforce analytics can help uncover this information and help HR pinpoint where problems may lie and take action, whether it's coaching managers or reassigning an employee to a job that makes better use of his or her skills and interests, says Martini.

Some companies are keeping employees engaged by tinkering with the much-despised annual performance-review process -- or dispensing with it altogether.

"Everyone likes coaching and feedback but they hate performance reviews," says Leerom Segal, co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based digital-marketing company Klick Health and author of the new book The Decoded Company: Know Your Talent Better Than You Know Your Customers. "And the vast majority of companies think their performance-review processes suck. So we've developed this notion of the weekly review -- it takes 20 minutes at most and it's informed by data."

With annual reviews, managers tend to be biased toward things that happened recently, while the employee knows that compensation is attached to the process, so emotions and politics are involved, says Segal. With weekly reviews, he says, employees get the chance to course-correct on a weekly basis. They can also have more meaningful conversations because they're talking about things that actually happened that week, he says.

"We are trying to inform the intuition of our managers -- to temper their instincts with analytics," he says. "When you do that, you get decisions that are based on data."

Klick Health's engagement strategy also includes holding monthly "Mojo Meetings" to recognize employees who've done innovative work. The meetings routinely include guest speakers and discussions of interesting new books that can help employees develop their skills, says Segal.

The topic of employee retention and development is clearly on the minds of CEOs, according to the Conference Board's CEO Challenge 2014 report, based on a survey of the CEOs, presidents and chairmen of 1,000 companies around the world.

"Though particular strategies vary from region to region, business leaders worldwide are working to optimize their greatest resource -- their employees and those who will lead them," says Rebecca Ray, senior vice president for human capital at the Conference Board and a co-author of the report. "Building a culture that supports engagement, employee training, leadership development and high performance is something companies can control, and can mean the difference between growing market share and simply surviving in 2014."

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