Bad News About Employee Engagement Spells Opportunity for Communicators

There is a tremendous opportunity for employee communication professionals brewing. Now, perhaps more than any other time in our profession’s history, we can cement our place as a value-added business function by helping our organizations fix a problem that threatens their ability to remain competitive.

I believe one of the greatest challenges facing businesses today is the continued disintegration of employee engagement. I’ve written about this epidemic before and research continues to show that businesses are trying to achieve their goals with employees who are demotivated, disappointed in their work experiences, distrustful of management and who have simply checked out.

The latest study comes from Maritz Motivation Solutions. They surveyed more than 1,000 workers across industries and the findings show a continuation of disengagement that began around 2008 with the U.S. economic crisis. Among the findings:

  • Only 45% of employees said they feel rewarded and recognized by their employers
  • Of those who did not feel recognized for their efforts (which is the majority), 80% did not feel completely satisfied with their job
  • Of those who did not feel recognized, 58% did not feel motivated to go beyond their normal job duties to get the job done
  • 33% identified themselves as employees who just “stay the course” rather than being motivated to make a difference, move the organization forward, or innovate “what’s next.”

A workforce that doesn’t feel recognized or rewarded for a job well done is a lot less likely to exert much effort in their work, the study found. And a disengaged workforce can be deadly to businesses struggling to compete in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

That translates into real dollars, folks. Companies today need employees who are willing to apply their talents and skills, ready to innovate, and who will go the extra mile to get things done.

Communication can play a crucial role in turning things around. Studies have shown there is a direct correlation between companies that communicate frequently and openly with their employees and the degree to which employees are engaged. Companies with effective communication practices have more engaged workers, and more engaged workers create more successful companies.

We should grab hold of this opportunity and not let it go. This is a real problem that smart leaders should be worried about. We should be getting time on our leaders’ calendars to sit down and talk about how communication can help re-engage employees. If we don’t, we might have a lot fewer employees to communicate with down the road.



Employee Communication: Help for a Disengaged Workforce

While doing some research for an employee communications class I’m teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall, I ran across some compelling information about the mindset of many people in today’s workforce.

I’ve already shared data from a 2010 Maritz Research poll that found only 10 percent of employees trust management to make the right decisions in uncertain times. The same poll found only 14 percent believe their leaders are ethical and honest, and 12 percent believe their leaders listen to and care about employees.

According to the Gallup organization, 72 percent of employees are not engaged in their work. Basically, they’re going through the motions.

Towers Watson’s Global Workforce Study in 2010 found that during the 2008-10 financial crisis, 72 percent of U.S. companies reduced their workforces. Seven out of 10 employees say this negatively affected how they feel about their work and employers.

Engagement matters, too. Three years earlier, Towers Perrin (the predecessor firm) found that return on assets in high-engagement companies was six times higher than low-engagement companies. High-engagement companies also had an average 19 percent increase in operating income and an average 28 percent growth in earnings per share year-over-year. In low-engagement companies, operating income dropped an average of 32 percent and EPS dropped an average of 11 percent year over year.

If you need more proof that engagement is important to a company’s success, here are all kinds of statistics on the subject.

Roger D’Aprix says employee engagement is “unleashing the energy and talent of people in the workplace.” Companies need engaged workforces to drive innovation, to ensure customer satisfaction, and because today’s society — not to mention today’s workers — expect it. Besides, considering the power of social media, would you rather have engaged or disengaged employees firing up Facebook and Twitter at night?

Employee communication plays a vital role in helping companies keep employees engaged and working for rather than against them. Consider some of the ways employee communication can help:

  • It helps keep everyone focused on the same things by explaining business goals
  • It helps build a sense of community among workers so that they feel they are a part of something important and good
  • It helps explain policies, procedures and culture — the way things are done around here
  • It helps demystify the complexities of the company
  • It helps explain to employees why they should want to be involved in the business and how they can be
  • It connects people with others in the organization who can help them accomplish things
  • It helps create a sense of trust between management and employees

Unfortunately in lean times like these, employee communication is often one of the first things to have its budget and resources reduced. Yet, these are the times when employee communication is needed most — to help engage a battered and disenfranchised workforce.

Five Ways to Rebuild Lost Trust

I recently decried the results of a survey that indicates U.S. workers’ trust in management continues to erode, even as the nation’s economy struggles to regain its footing. If ever there was a time when business leaders need the confidence and engagement of employees, it’s now.

According to the survey, only one in 10 employees trust management to make the right decisions in difficult times. In a telling bit of data, 7 percent believe their leaders’ actions match their words.

Such an alarming lack of trust has serious consequences for business. A workforce that doesn’t trust its management is one that is not very likely to invest itself in the difficult tasks ahead. Distrustful employees are more likely to spend their time griping about how their jobs suck, how the company is headed for disaster and how senior management is a bunch of buffoons. All of this chips away at productivity, morale and reputation. It drains the life right out of the organization.

I seriously doubt that’s what American business leaders want. Yet they are so consumed with digging out of the recession, trying to light a fire under the weak recovery, propping up the financials so that investors don’t lose their confidence, that they fail to recognize what’s happening inside their companies. And they fail to recognize that they have a powerful tool available to help regain the trust they’ve lost among employees: communication.

I don’t believe communication is the cure-all for any business problem, including the erosion of trust. But I do believe that, combined with other activities, communication can help greatly. However, communication is often the first thing business leaders sacrifice during tough times and the last thing they think about as a resource for recovery.

Here are five things business leaders can do to begin to rebuild employees’ trust:

  • Be visible. People don’t trust people that they never see and with whom they never interact. Roger D’Aprix, an internal communications icon, once said that trust isn’t built by sending a memo. Face-to-face interaction is necessary for trust to be established. That’s because people assess others by a host of non-verbal signals — body language, tone of voice, inflections, facial expressions.
  • Spend quality time with people. When I worked in employee communications at one of AT&T’s manufacturing facilities in the 1990s, the president of our business unit once told me that communication was his most important job as a leader. When he visited our plant, he always took an hour to walk out onto the factory floor and talk with people. He communicated business messages and he asked questions and he listened. That one hour went a long way toward establishing trust with employees. Business leaders must build time into their schedules, no matter how brief, to communicate.
  • Demonstrate trustworthiness. As the survey points out, workers today don’t believe management’s words match their actions. Business leaders who find themselves in this predicament must take concrete steps to demonstrate that their “say” matches their “do.” Honor commitments. Keep appointments. It will take time, but employees will begin to have faith that their leader’s word is trustworthy.
  • Trust others. Showing others that you trust them goes a long way toward building their trust in you. Business leaders can demonstrate they trust employees by sharing information, delegating responsibility and generally treating employees like adults. Workers who feel their management doesn’t even trust them with work-related information are not very likely to reciprocate.
  • Open up. Just as in personal relationships, business leaders must take some risks by opening up, being honest and showing some vulnerability in order to gain employees’ trust. This means sometimes sharing sensitive information, engaging in frank discussions and admitting mistakes.

Trust takes time to build, a moment to destroy and even more time to rebuild. People who feel their trust has been betrayed or at least not honored will try to protect themselves from a similar disappointment by not easily trusting again. Unfortunately, this is where many business leaders find themselves today. It’s not a hopeless place, but escaping it requires time, intention, and a sincere effort.

No Communication? No Trust

With an economy that’s taking its sweet time recovering from the worst recession since World War II and global competition fiercer than ever, it would be nice if American workers had confidence in their companies’ management to lead them through the tough times.

Don’t hold your breath. A new poll by Maritz Research delivers a scathing assessment of employees’ trust in their business leaders.

Only 14 percent believe their companies’ leaders are ethical and honest. Ten percent trust management to make the right decisions in uncertain times. Twenty-five percent say they have less trust in management than they did last year — and that’s in an economy that is supposedly on the upswing, slow as it may be.

“Employee trust is such a critical factor for success, especially given what the American workforce has faced the past several years,” says Rick Garlick, Ph.D., senior director of strategic consulting and implementation with Martiz Hospitality Research Group. “This data paints such a dire picture of employee trust levels, management must ask themselves how they can better engage with their people.”

Business leaders could start with communication. Only 12 percent of workers believe their employers really listen to and care about employees. As with most business problems, improving communication can only help organizations rebuild trust between employees and their leaders. There is no downside to better communication.

Yet many business leaders sabotage their companies’ futures by cutting communication activities to the bone and acting as if employees are a necessary evil in the pursuit of profits. No need to discuss the business strategy with employees; they don’t care and they wouldn’t understand it anyway. No need to give workers an opportunity to express their opinions, ask questions or share ideas for improvement; that would only cost time and money, and besides, we know more about what needs to be done than they do. No need to share the stories of people who are doing great things to help the company succeed; it’s a waste of time and does nothing to help us make our numbers.

The fact is that communication is among the most powerful tools business leaders have at their disposal. Employees who see and hear and understand their management’s plans for the business are more likely to invest themselves in implementing those plans. Workers who feel valued and respected are more willing to plug in and do whatever it takes to help the business succeed. Employees who are treated like adults will act like adults; they’ll take responsibility and do difficult things and be productive.

Trust is the foundation of any relationship. You can’t trust someone you don’t know. And you can’t know someone if you don’t communicate with them. Regularly.

There’s been a lot of head scratching going on this year about why the economy has no steam behind it, even though we’ve turned the corner from the Great Recession. Maybe a good place for business leaders to start turning things around would be to take some solid steps toward rebuilding the trust of employees they have so obviously lost.