Employee engagement in uncertain times (Toughest HR question)

Many of the programs that engage employees cost little or nothing
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/31/2011

Question: As an employer, how can we engage our employees in an atmosphere of economic uncertainty, particularly in the wake of cutbacks and downsizing in our organization?

Answer: While several indicators are pointing towards an economic recovery in the near future, we aren’t completely out of the woods yet. Because of weakness in the global economy, there’s still a lot of uncertainty in the Canadian job market.

As a result, we’re still seeing relatively high unemployment. Many people who are still working are staying put because they realize that, in many cases, for every job posted there are hundreds of applicants. People are also afraid they’ll change jobs only to find themselves unemployed soon after or the new job is far from ideal.

Employers are asking employees to do more with less. Many people are working harder and longer than they did before, particularly if they’ve been asked to do work previously done by colleagues who’ve been laid off. In many organizations, there isn’t any budget for base pay increases, bonuses or other incentives.

No wonder employee engagement scores have fallen over the last couple of years as feelings of fear, uncertainty, distrust and “survivor’s guilt” pervade. Employers worry about this, particularly when there’s no budget for traditional engagement programs.

What can employers do about this? Fortunately, many of the types of things that engage employees cost little or nothing. There are five themes that come to mind when looking at what engages employees: communications, empowerment, wellness, social concerns and rewards. Let’s examine each of these, particularly with respect to the implementation of low-cost initiatives.


• Ensure employees are kept in the loop with regard to organizational changes and developments affecting them.

• Ensure senior management builds trust with employees by being honest and forthright in their communications, and being available and approachable.

• Provide employees with an understanding of how their jobs fit in with the overall organization and how their work contributes to organizational goals.

• Clearly communicate the organization’s vision, mission and values to employees.

• Cascade clearly defined organizational goals to all employees and allow them to participate in setting their own goals and objectives.

• Provide proper context for performance management — let employees know what’s expected of them.

• Conduct regular employee engagement surveys and report on their results in a transparent manner, develop meaningful action items on areas of concern and take concrete steps towards implementing those changes.


• Provide opportunities for job rotation, enrichment and enlargement.

• Provide opportunities for employees to work co-operatively and collaboratively.

• Involve employees in the decision-making process.

• Provide stimulating work that is not boring or repetitive.

• Provide employees the freedom to determine how they complete their work.

• Provide employees with opportunities to innovate and excel in their jobs.

• Ensure employees have the equipment and materials required to be successful.

• Provide learning and development opportunities wherever possible.


• Ensure health, safety and ergonomic concerns are taken seriously.

• Ensure the workplace is physically pleasant and temperature, air quality and noise levels are optimal.

• Ensure employees have adequate vacation time and they take time off.

• Ensure employees have reasonable demands placed on them and a positive work-life balance.

• Develop policies dealing with a respectful workplace and ensure those policies are enforced — do not tolerate bullying or harassment of any kind.

• Demonstrate compassion and provide emotional support during difficult times.

• Ensure managers take the time to get to know their direct reports and demonstrate genuine concern for their well-being.

Social concerns

• Provide opportunities for employees to socialize and get to know one another through team-building events, parties, pot lucks and departmental lunches.

• Allow employees the opportunity to fulfill their own personal values by working on special projects and volunteering for charity during working hours for a few days each year.

Total rewards

• Ensure the total rewards package (including cash compensation, benefits, pensions and other rewards) is competitive and fair, both externally and internally.

• Implement a pay-for-performance culture that recognizes superior performance.

This question was answered by the editors of Consult Carswell, a Canadian HR work solution that delivers best practices, legal compliance, news, articles and a suite of ready-to-use tools in one online service. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

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