Thursday, November 29, 2012

How Committed Are Your Employees?

Companies make hiring decisions based primarily on qualifications and experience, but the biggest difference among employees is likely what they feel about their job and their employer. These differences can be measured in the varying levels of what's known as employee engagement.

According to studies on employee engagement, there are three types of employees:
  • Committed (or engaged). These are employees who feel an emotional connection to their job and employer. They believe in the company's goals and are committed to helping them succeed. They give discretionary effort beyond what is required. Only 25-30% of American workers meet this definition of committed.
  • Compliant. These are employees who don't have much enthusiasm for their job or who don't feel much commitment to their employer. They may be dependable in the sense that they do what they are told and may do it well, but they're unlikely to give any extra effort or take initiative beyond what is required. Compliant employees comprise 50-60% of the workforce.
  • Noncompliant. These employees are unhappy with their job or their employer and act out their dissatisfaction in ways that are detrimental to the company. Their noncompliance may be subtle, or even tolerated if the employee is talented, but it exacts a cost to the company's performance and workplace environment. Studies indicate that 10-15% of employees fall into this category.
So what proportions do you think are present in your firm? I would expect a higher percentage of committed employees in the typical A/E firm. But if you're a manager, it's likely that there are fewer of them than you think. In my years of conducting employee surveys and interviews, I've found that managers usually overestimate the degree of employee satisfaction in their firm.

There's more at stake than simply how satisfied your employees feel. The level of employee engagement directly impacts business performance. For example, companies with a larger proportion of committed employees are more profitable, grow faster, have higher quality, are more innovative, have more customer loyalty, and deliver better returns to their shareholders. Committed employees are 87% less likely to leave their firm, 62% less likely to get injured on the job, and even take 66% fewer sick days.

Considering its impact on business, employee engagement certainly merits your attention. Let me focus for a moment on one ramification—employee retention. I don't have data, but it's evident that employee movement between A/E firms has picked up in recent months. During the worst of the recession, there was little voluntary movement as firms weren't hiring. Layoffs touched the most sensitive aspect of employee satisfaction—job security. Management actions in response to the downturn further contributed to a 10% decline in employee satisfaction in this country.

As business improves, expect to see more employee movement. The harder the recession has hit your firm, the more likely you are to see voluntary departures. This may be the compelling reason to finally take actions to increase employee engagement.

So what factors drive greater employee engagement? The following are tops among the several studies I looked at:

Being part of a winning organization. Obviously, employees are more likely to be enthusiastic about a firm that's successful, or at least one they believe is doing the right things to become more successful. The more opportunity they have to contribute to efforts to help the firm succeed, the more likely they are to feel that connection. If your firm has multiple offices, keep in mind that employee perceptions of the firm are defined at the local level.

Feeling appreciated for one's contribution. In a Gallup survey, 65% of workers said they had received no recognition for doing their job well in the last year. In ZweigWhite's employee surveys for the A/E industry, 67% of employees said they received recognition for their performance—better, but hardly encouraging. This is clearly an area where improvement is needed. I've written previously in this space about the power of positive reinforcement.

Doing meaningful work. Employees like to feel their work has purpose and value. The research suggests that this is particularly important to Gen X and Gen Y workers. But I've had many conversations with fellow Boomers who, reflecting back over their careers, are looking for lasting takeaways from all the years they've invested in their careers. No doubt the work we do in this business is valuable, but we often fail to make a strong connection between our work and the human and societal benefits it delivers. If you want more committed employees, make that connection clear.

Working for competent, caring leaders. Gallup observes that people join good companies and leave bad bosses. In fact, their research indicates that the number one reason employees voluntarily leave their employers is a strained relationship with their boss. But there's more to this factor than that singular relationship. Employees want leaders they trust. They want leaders they can believe have the ability to guide the firm to a successful future. Competence alone won't do, however. Employees want leaders who also care about them as people, in part expressed by showing appreciation (see point above).

Having positive working relationships. Our work is inherently relational. Beyond the relationships employees have with bosses and leaders, their attitude about work is clearly shaped by how they get along with other colleagues—and with clients and other outside parties if their job involves working closely with them. There are many reasons why your firm should take steps to build effective working relationships at all levels; employee engagement is one of them. And don't forget to have some fun. It goes a long way in strengthening those key relationships.

Seeing a path for career growth. Employees, especially the younger ones, naturally want to know how to grow and advance in their job. Many A/E firms still haven't defined clear pathways for advancing up the ranks. What experience, what skills, and what training is needed for each job category? If you haven't clarified the answers, doing so is a valuable step toward increasing employee engagement.

It's also important to give special attention to those positions that seem to have less opportunity for advancement. I was once involved in an initiative to look into high turnover among administrative staff at the firm where I worked. We conducted a survey that revealed that many were concerned that there was no path for advancement. After taking several steps to expand career paths for our administrative staff, including promoting two to the position of branch manager, turnover decreased markedly and subsequent surveys indicated much greater job satisfaction.

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