Convincing the cynical employee

Are employees engaged or playing dead? Depends on the corporate culture

Don’t look now, but we’re surrounded. Surrounded by employees who don’t trust us, by employees who don’t care, by workers who are interested only in themselves and their careers. This may sound cynical but the research says it’s true.

A 2002 global survey of almost 20,000 workers, by consulting firm Taylor Nelson Sofres, found that as much as 54 per cent of the workforce within lower-performing companies is made up of disengaged employees and people who place themselves or their careers over company needs. Ouch.

Other studies have shown workers want improvements in recognition and awards before they will feel committed to their organizations.

So where did all these cynical folks come from? From sales staffs. From the assembly line. From the nursing team. We’ve conditioned them and we train more every day… through corporate cultures where employee contributions are neither valued nor appreciated.

The following anonymous letter, left on an executive’s desk, expresses the feelings of the cynical employee: “When management continually professes its highest allegiance to shareholders, employee satisfaction becomes a whisper in the wind. The message becomes: Work harder, work longer, and be glad we treat you as good as we do. We really need employees, but we don’t answer to them. Replace them, yes. Outsource their responsibilities, yes. Appease them, no.”

This company has a problem on its hands. And it is not alone.

In such cultures, employees soon learn that the company will not meet their needs for esteem and recognition. So they fight back — by playing dead. They put forth minimal effort. They choose to invest themselves only in activities that directly benefit themselves. A cynical employee has just one real job: taking care of No. 1. And the only way to fix that is to do the job for him.

Here’s how it works: When a company takes care of its employees’ needs, employees are freed up to put their energy and passion back into their work. They become emotionally and intellectually committed again. In other words, they are engaged.

Research done by Hewitt Associates for its Best Employers in Canada study found that employees of Best Employers are, on average, 21 per cent more engaged than employees of other organizations. In fact, top employers have an 80 per cent engagement score, compared to just 59 per cent at other participating organizations.

According to the Hewitt study, engagement is highly correlated to key business measures, including productivity and retention, customer satisfaction, total shareholder return and sales growth. Organizations that have improved their engagement level have realized corresponding improvements in their business success measures.

Fifty-five of the organizations that participated in the 2005 study are publicly traded. Those that appear on the 50 Best Employers list have an average compound annual growth rate of revenue (averaged over their last five fiscal years) of 16.4 per cent per annum, while those that did not make the list have an average growth rate of 6.1 per cent.

No recognition can be better than what passes for rewards

So how do employees get engaged? (Hint: It has nothing to do with a ring.) The most significant driver of engagement is recognition. Plain and simple, Canadian workers want to know they will be rewarded for their efforts. But not all recognition is equal.

Too many recognition programs seem to have been thrown together without much planning. While the thought is, “Let’s do something,” many of these programs end up doing more harm than good.

I’ve seen enough “Employee of the Year” programs to last a lifetime. When done outside of an integrated total recognition approach, these awards end up alienating 99 per cent of the employees who work for you who receive little or no recognition, and just embarrass the poor soul who ends up winning the award.

“Employee of the Month” programs are typically just as bad. After all, how would you feel if in a department of 20, you were the fifteenth to be recognized?

What can HR do about this?

Get strategically aligned: Employees thrive in organizations where the people practices are aligned with business strategy and are executed effectively. Recognition programs should reward behaviours that have the strongest impact on company goals. While most large companies have various recognition programs, they are typically done haphazardly with every area of the company “doing their own thing,” which means employees have no idea what actions will be recognized, when they’ll be recognized or if they’ll be recognized.

Give the right awards: In a year 2000 survey by American Express Incentive Services, 63 per cent of survey respondents said their loyalty would increase if the employer offered an ongoing incentive program that allowed employees to choose rewards that were personally relevant.

That’s why the best recognition programs appeal to a basic instinct to have that which we don’t have — offering a variety of items from sporting equipment to jewelry, from electronics to home and garden items, from travel packages to spa certificates to food. Offer a great selection, and employees will love to get rewarded.

Train leaders: Supervisors are trained to budget and to fill out time sheets and performance appraisals. But it’s a rare company that teaches supervisors how to fulfill their most important role — motivating employees. And that’s a mistake. Contrary to popular belief, the ability to express gratitude is not something most people innately possess. It is a skill that must be taught and improves with practice.

Companies that are creating engagement among staff and moving the productivity needle have programs that clearly communicate, recognize and reinforce the behaviours that matter most to a company’s success. Recognition is delivered in a standardized way across the organization, providing the right awards that are personally relevant to employees.

Rental car giant Avis created a standardized strategic online recognition program in 1999 that is now run across the organization. The program rewards workers with peer-to-peer thank you cards or with a selection of tangible awards at bronze, silver or gold levels.

Since the program’s inception, the company has seen a significant increase in employee satisfaction, and a decrease in turnover and in workers’ compensation claims. Most importantly, HR leaders at this company have seen a tenfold return when calculating the money spent against improvements in turnover.

Just like Avis, most companies do not need to invest any more money in recognition — they need only spend their current recognition dollars more strategically. Combatting cynical employees through strategically aligned recognition is not only good policy, it pays a handsome return to the bottom line.

HR can help foster a culture of recognition, which will in turn help drive the cynical employee toward engagement. And that’s big. Because the sooner an organization and its cynical workers join forces, the sooner you can concentrate on defeating the real enemy — your competitors.

John McVeigh is president of recognition firm O.C. Tanner Canada. He can be reached at [email protected].

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