Editor’s Note: This week, TLNT is counting down the most popular posts of 2010. This is No. 12 in our Top 25. We’ll continue to do this through New Year’s Eve. Our regular content will return on Monday January 3, 2011.

“When I lead my portion of the orientation, I do not have the heart to tell them and I can’t look them in the eye. This is a horrible place. It is like I am leading them to slaughter.”

That interaction took place last week as I was talking to a potential client and ran into one of my former co-workers who now works there and is involved in orientation. That short conversation gave me all the insight I needed — and all that research could have never provided.

Fittingly, I was leaving in a few days to attend the Human Capital Institute Engagement and Retention workshop. While I participated in the Executive Workgroup Session (which was a pre-conference session), I did not stay for the entire event. However, I played this conversation scenario over and over in my mind as I drove to Boston.

There is a scene in The Godfather where Vito Corleone asks, “How did things ever get so far apart?” This question was asked after he had to come out of “retirement” to get things back on track.

When management and workers are out of synch

I found myself asking the same basic question — how did organizations get this far out of sync with their workforce? Yes, there was the recession and the resulting fallout, but the seeds of this disengagement were sown long before the recession hit. The recession simply confirmed, exposed, and magnified all the fissures that were already there, albeit dormant.

I have always felt that if you lay off people with dignity and professionalism, the word would get around that you are a caring organization, the same as it does when it is done the wrong way.

The more I thought about this comment, the more I wondered how many other folks that are on the frontlines with new employees feel this? They’re on the beachhead of engagement; how many others in that important role feel the same way?

When I designed the onboarding program at Martha Stewart, I would lead the session every Monday morning. I would always begin by thanking the group for choosing us as a company and proceed to tell them why I felt that way. This would always set the tone for our day together. That program is now one of the featured sections in a just released book “Creative Onboarding Programs: Tools for Energizing Your Orientation Program” by Doris Sims, published by McGraw-Hill.

What if you were to hear that statement from one of your employees, let alone a leader in your orientation program or one of the managers?

Where does engagement start?

Engagement starts from the top, and senior management should be aware of the engagement gap as well as HR. If they are not aware, it is HR’s duty to bring it to the forefront.

I would like every senior leader to ask themselves the following question: Just how many of your employees are actually engaged? If they say approximately 50 percent, they are close. According to a recent Gallup study on employee engagement, about 54 percent of employees in the United States are not engaged and 17 percent are disengaged. Only 29 percent are engaged. But here are three key points to remember:

A recent study by Green Peak Partners named interpersonal skills as the most important trait of the new leader. Another study by Towers Watson showed the intersection of engagement and financial performance and the results showed that companies with a highly engaged employee population turned in significantly better financial performance (a 5.75 percent difference in operating margins and a 3.44 percent difference in net profit margins) than did low-engagement workplaces.

Priority No. 1 for HR

How could something as important as engagement that has such a profound effect be so blatantly dismissed or ignored? If this were a marketing problem, customer service problem, or a production problem, all the forces within the organization would mobilize to attack it. There would not be this clueless and dismissive approach to what I have always believed is the MOST IMPORTANT ASSET in any company.

Companies are made up of people and it is their ideas, performance, and their ability, coupled with the correct strategy from management, that will allow companies to get it done and drive exceptional bottom line results.

HR departments should make this priority no 1. Because, if you are talking about retention, talent management, leadership development and all the other sweet spots, take a look at the basics first. Because, you can have all the others, but if no one wants to be there, it does not matter anyway.

This is a starting point, and by no means am I suggesting that this will rein in the loss of engagement, but what I do hope is that is causes us all to think about how IMPORTANT this issue is for your company.

My follow-up question to the person that told me the about her dilemma with new employees during orientation was that it is OK to have those feelings. Talk to your manager, or your manager’s manager, to get it out on the table. If you feel that this will fall on deaf ears, well, it may just be time to move on.

Because, sooner rather than later someone in senior management will play the role of Vito Corleone, ask the tough question themselves, and bring the issue to the forefront.