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John Fisher

Strategic Brand Engagement


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Why HR is its own worst enemy when it comes to employee engagement


In recent years, the use of the written term ‘employee engagement’ has overtaken phrases such as ‘staff incentives’ and ‘employee motivation’1 for the first time since 1920, demonstrating an emerging new ‘engagement’ model when motivating staff, particularly those who work for large, global organisations.

Employee engagement is a compelling proposition and there have been dozens of studies which ‘prove’ to companies the benefits of highly engaged employees. Allan Schweyer of the Human Capital Institute says: "A study by global services provider Towers Watson found that high-engagement firms experienced an earnings-per-share (EPS) growth rate of 28%, compared with an 11.2% decline for low-engagement firms."

So far, so good. Any logical, right-minded executive would be foolish not to support a solid, internal engagement initiative with this kind of scientific research and clear business benefits, but many fail to implement it successfully. One of the main reasons behind this is lack of collaboration between departments. Leaving HR to handle employee engagement without effective partnership with other areas of the company means the message of ‘employee engagement’ is often lost in the delivery.

HR processes and protocols have managed to strangle many great engagement initiatives at birth…and then everyone wonders why it doesn’t work for them.

This is where collaboration with other departments becomes key. Let’s take communication. Writing words that are compelling with suitable visual imagery to match is a specialist skill that works. When it comes to engaging staff, if a message is professionally written, more employees will see it, read it and take notice of it than if it is a round-robin from the HR director reminding them about the deadline for pension contributions decisions and public holidays.

Join forces

So why not take advantage of the marketing department down the corridor when crafting employee notices? No doubt there are some in HR who are good at ‘comms’, but statistically they are few and far between. It’s not where most HR people are recruited from and it’s not where they feel most comfortable, yet there still seems to be a lingering reluctance to relinquish some control and join forces when it comes to the area of staff engagement.

Input from other departments may also help over-ride HR’s penny-pinching tendencies. The problem is HR people are hard-wired to cut and snip and chop, so that before you know it, all the hair on the head has gone, leaving the organisation with no choice but to wait for it to grow again. This is not good in the context of employee engagement.

The problem is one of attitude. HR departments are dominated by the need to save money. Spending resources on good communication and performance-based rewards hangs heavy and any rewards for better engagement are given with a weighty dollop of resentment.

Most external services purchased by HR are led by cost-per-employee measures which belie the strategic view that ‘we must invest in staff’. Benefits are pared down to the bone. Volume deals with suppliers are squeezed to the point of desert-like aridity that one wonders sometimes why the benefits supplier would even turn up to a meeting at all.

There are legions of conferences run by HR which are so slim in terms of presentation and content that you do begin to wonder why they bothered.

Recruitment is consolidated so as to avoid ‘the fees’, with most recruiting being done in-house and online, even though, hour-for-hour, this is a very expensive way to find new blood.

And what about the rewards themselves?  There is an axiom in incentive theory that suggest that no-one will change their behaviour at work for less than 3% of take-home pay…or its equivalent. So why would an employee go above and beyond the call of duty for less than 1%? It really makes no sense.

Must-have rewards

To engage employees in organisation-changing behaviour, offering the best of the best ‘lunch with the CEO’ and a paper certificate after a year’s hard work is about as effective as a chocolate teapot. ‘What gets rewarded, gets done’ is an oft-quoted maxim when it comes to changing processes. But make the reward worth having!

As for cash, why is it that despite over 50 years of research into cash v non-cash (non-cash reward is some three times more effective than cash) HR folk still insist on using cash bonuses as the go-to reward choice. Not only is it more expensive than other rewards, because there is no discount for cash, recipients mostly view cash as a cynical ‘bribe’ by management to get employees to do what perhaps they should be doing willingly anyway.

What could be done to change this, do-it-yourself, cheap as chips approach to employee motivation?

Why not appoint a director of engagement who sits on the board and has two key staff: a marketing director and an HR director. That way the communication and incentive needs for engagement can be met professionally and the natural HR tendency to do things on the cheap can be curtailed. The converse is also true. Any spending excesses from marketing can be reined in and a suitably professional compromise agreed.

In the final analysis the incremental corporate gains from better engagement are so enormous that the extra £10,000 here or there pales into insignificance in the overall scheme of things, especially for shareholder returns. And you never know, the organisation might even be a more fun place to work in than it used to be.

1 USA-based Enterprise Engagement Alliance bulletin, March 2011                      

6 Responses

  1. do not try to raise engagement by dealing out rewards

    dear John,

    thank you for this article, although I am not convinced of the points you make.

    In my experience people are always highly engaged because of their own high standards and sometimes ambitions. It does not make any difference to them, not even in the short run, if they get a more or less vague promise of some reward, especially not, if you as hr start playing some sort of competition game. This is not only fruitless, it actually damages your culture and encourage internal competition. This works like poison if you want co-operation.

    Everybody in a company I have ever met wanted to be treated as an adult and not being dealt out 'sweets' for something serious. Just pay fairly (meaning market value) and make the employees understand that.

    People will be highly engaged and stay with you, if next to a worthy salary they feel social belonging, feel valued and are able to see the big picture.

    The sooner you promote this, the sooner your company will be happy with hr performance regarding employee engagement.

    best regards


  2. Working like a labour is not

    Working like a labour is not the best thing for a company. A good company must have rewards for its employees and also different competitions for the engagement of the employees so that they don’t leave the company. I totally agree with the points mentioned in your blog. Thanks for sharing it. I liked it.

    See more info :

  3. Are Engagement and Motivational Rewards the same thing?

    Thank you for the article John with very well made points. I agree with your points regarding collaboration between Marketing and HR and securing an Executive sponsor. As Bob says, to this we add wider Executive leadership and commitment which is then driven through to middle management.

    Reward and incentive programs are important in driving engagement, but I would argue that to provide maximum value, they have a time and a place. Although Engagement is not a process, but an outcome, perhaps if it was included within the balanced scorecard of the Executive team, then it would receive more commitment, resources and ultimately budget. This would help to kick start the process.

    However, in terms of colleagues throughout the business, reward (via incentive and motivation programs) will only have an impact once the bedrock of engagement is established. Consider Daniel Pink's findings in 'Drive: The Surprising Truth behind What Motivates Us' where he argues that Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are essential ingredients to engagement.

    Building on this, Business Psychologist Ruth Patel and Motivation Industry expert John Sylvester, argue that employee engagement and motivation are not the same. Engagement is broadly about getting employees onside with organisational goals. This is very much cultural and driven at both an organizational and personal level, reflecting the psychology behind people's behaviours. Essential factors are the purpose of the organization and an individuals' role within it, Leadership, Relationship with Managers and Teams, Personal Growth and Wellbeing; all wrapped up in a strong communication program.

    Motivation, on the other hand, sits on a solid foundation of engagement and is about firing up employees to achieve specific goals such as sales targets or service levels. This is the point in the process when programs will have a wider and longer lasting impact.

    If you are interested in some practical measures that can be taken before the wider reward stage, you can read more here:

  4. HR facilitatiing ‘fun’…

    Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for your kind comments about my article. Yes, we often forget that once the strategy is sorted organizations then need to actually involve people personally, not just agree the top line and hope everyone 'gets it'.

    I am in Manchester from time to time for the football so could come up earlier one time and we can meet. Please contact me on [email protected]

    Best regards

  5. Empowering a workforce is easy to do.

    Hello John, thanks for the article.

    Too much effort is spent trying to get employees to be engaged.

    Employee engagement is what employers get in return for doing all things well.

    Doing all things well is very hard work for most of us.

    Empowering a workforce is easy to do; have all executives, managers, and supervisors do their jobs well all of the time. The hard part is getting the executives to do their jobs well, the next hardest part is getting managers to do their jobs well, followed by supervisors doing their jobs well.

    Employees will be doing their jobs well if everyone above them is doing their jobs well. Look out, employee engagement is about to take hold. Some employers want to skip the executives, managers and supervisor parts and go right to the employees, but that is not how employees get engaged.

    80% of employees self-report that they are not engaged.
    80% of managers are ill suited to effectively manage people.
    The two 80 percents are closely related.

    Successful employees have all three of the following success predictors while unsuccessful employee lack one or two and usually it is Job Talent that they lack.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Job Talent

    Employers do a… 
    A. GREAT job of hiring competent employees.
    B. Good job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture.
    C. POOR job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture and who have a talent for the job.

  6. Engagement

    I think this article is great John, completely agree! In fact, I have set up a new initiative which aims to address the issues mentioned above. I have also written a blog on the Greater Manchester Chamber website which you can read here:

    Would appreciate some feedback as what we're doing taps into exactly what you're explaining and we're hoping for advice/assistance in showing this to HR professionals. We're also organising a free HR networking event in Manchester city centre at the end of September which you're more than welcome to attend!

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