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Karen Drury

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The suspicious motives of the employee engagement movement


This article was written by Karen Drury, consultant with Maven International (UK) Ltd.

"A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence."
(David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

Consider the changes made to employee legislation in the past few weeks.

To bring a case for unfair dismissal against your employer, you now need to work for the same company for two years, rather than one. Reductions to legal aid mean that a number of types of cases, including employment, will not eligible for financial support.

Proposed legislation in the form of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill will mean that employees who feel they have been unfairly dismissed will find it more difficult to get redress. The changes here, due for implementation in the summer, will include a cap on compensation for unfair dismissal and charges of up to £1,200 to get a hearing.

Although the legislation enabling the employee/shareholder contract has been defeated in the House of Lords, this may go for a second reading in the Commons. This new contract involved employees waiving some employment rights in return for shares in the business they work for. These employment rights are not trivial: the right to unfair dismissal, statutory redundancy pay, the right to request flexible working and training, and increasing the time limit for giving notice of return from maternity or adoption leave.

Put this with the proposed legislation which halves the period of collective consultation from 90 days to 45 and you have a steady assault on employee’s rights. There were even rumours in the news this week that the Government may be planning to reduce the minimum wage.

Add to this some other noteworthy research findings such as Hay’s seven-year report on leadership which shows a rise in the use of a “coercive” style among UK leaders; or the figures from the Office of National Statistics which suggest that nearly a quarter of Britain’s major employers keep workers on zero-hours contracts. This means that 200,000 people have no guarantee of work or income.

This hardly seems to add up to a work environment in which engagement can flourish. It also makes me deeply suspicious of the motive of many companies involved in the engagement movement.

I’m a fan of engagement in much the same way you would be a fan of, say – eating and drinking. Much of it is such common sense, it would be hard to disagree with the fundamentals. Who wouldn’t want an engaged workforce, champing at the bit to fulfil the company mission and purpose, willing to work harder, do more with less and actually smile while they’re doing it?

But I’ve always had an eye on the comment of the Trades Unions about the Holy Grail of engagement, discretionary effort; “the inferences were too close to a case for effort over and above the agreed, contracted job, and so tantamount to unpaid overtime.” [Engaging for success: enhancing performance through employee engagement. (2009) McLeod, D and Clarke, N.]

Engagement emerged out of the depths of recession, suggesting that employers could and should arrange their working relationship so that more was done with, and for, less.

The original concept of engagement was developed with an eye to “good work” for employees – stressing that work needs to be meaningful, that employees should feel safe to be themselves and should have all the physical and psychological resources to engage.

This is a far cry from the ideas of profit and productivity which thread through the current rhetoric on engagement. Industry views engagement as an outcome; academics who developed the original concept viewed it as a psychological state and the key benefits were aimed at the employee in terms of well-being. Organisational benefits were a happy, but secondary outcome.

In addition, if engagement were to be truly embedded in organisations, it wouldn’t be done on the strength of an engagement survey or a communication programme. If employees are to enjoy their jobs, have a voice within the organisation and be listened to, suggest ideas for innovation – a lot more needs to change.

For example, leaders and managers may need to change their style, their stance, their behaviour. Hence the news that managers are drifting back to command and control as a management style is disturbing. Jobs might need to be redesigned to ensure that they were meaningful, with a clear line of sight from the job to organisational strategy, and from there to a wider purpose. There doesn’t seem to be much chance of this if you’re not sure whether you’re going to get any work on any given week. Employees might need to take – not just be given – power in order that “empowerment” means something real, rather than lip service. This might mean redesigning the role of the leader, even taking it out altogether – and in this economic climate, I’m uncertain where the impetus for that might come from.

All of this makes me doubt the motives of those developing engagement programmes. It seems to me to be less about real engagement in which all parties benefit and which requires wholesale change, and more about a management quick fix to create more profit out of less resource.

The rhetoric of engagement is that it is a shared benefit, but this will not materialise until employers realise the depth of the changes required. Until then, it will only be a PR exercise and the motives for introducing it will either be dishonest or, at best, naïve.

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Karen Drury


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