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Colborn’s Corner: Employee engagement – realism or wishful thinking?

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Quentin Colborn

Some of my work involves helping organisations understand how their staff feel and think about them – commonly through employee surveys and it is interesting to see what distinguishes an okay place to work from a great place to work.


One set of questions frequently used goes along the lines of:

Which of these phrases best describes how you would speak to outside people about Bloggs & Co: a) as an employer and b) about its services?

  • I would speak highly without being asked

  • I would speak highly if asked

  • I would be neutral

  • I would be critical if asked

  • I would be critical without being asked

Now is the time to be honest. How do you think your organisation would come out on this scale – and does it matter?

A lot of the ways we look at this will depend on our attitude to work, that of our organisation and the people who work within it. For many, work is simply an exercise to generate cash to live another life – those who work to live. For others, work is something very fulfilling, and while not going as far as saying they live to work, it is a major and valued part of their lives.

So what do we make of all this? Do we simply write off those who are not committed to work except as a cash generation activity? Alternatively do we seek to get them engaged? If so how do we go about it? What about those who are already engaged – how do we keep the momentum going? And does it even matter at all?

Is it really a big issue to have our staff fully engaged with our organisations? I happen to think it does matter. Firstly, I hold the view that regardless of the nature of the job, everyone needs to feel their work is worthwhile – that way they gain some sort of fulfilment from what they do.

Secondly, if people are engaged that is likely to rub off on potential new recruits. We all know that in some places recruitment is incredibly difficult (while acknowledging that getting a job can also be very difficult in some places), and regardless of the professionalism of adverts a major influence on recruitment can be the reputation an employer has in the local area. And that all comes back to the employees.

Thirdly, for many organisations the impact of the employees can be significant in terms of the marketing of the organisation and its products. While few situations are as high profile, remember what Gerald Ratner did to Ratners.

As HR professionals the way we treat applicants can equally be part of that external market, and whatever the reason a bad customer will communicate their unhappiness to many more people than hear good news. The message from this is that for many organisations employee engagement is not just ‘nice’ HR, but a full blown commercial issue that impacts on the bottom line.

So what can be done about engagement? There are books and courses full of ideas, but while being wary of oversimplifying things, I would suggest it boils down to communication and management style.

How do your front line managers treat people? How does the ‘boss’ speak down to people? Do your management team ‘walk the talk’? And if not what, if anything, can be done about it? Do people understand where their role fits into the organisation and who depends on them and who they rely on?

What are your views? What distinguishes an okay place to work from a great place to work? Some jobs are routine, with less than brilliant conditions, how have people gone about building engagement in situations like these? I would be interested to hear your stories.

Where does your organisation stand on the question at the start of this article, and where would your top team place it?

Colborn’s Corner: series articles

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Annie Hayes

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