THE BLOG
09/11/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

Which is the Real Problem: Employee Disengagement Or the Way We View It?

The subject of Employee Engagement is a hot topic and I am not the first to chime in on the matter. While I find the various percentages and metrics assessing the impact of disengagement on companies quite compelling, it is equally constructive to assess engagement from the employee vantage point. As the owner of a Staffing & Recruiting firm, my entire livelihood is based on understanding why people stay and why people go. I consult with executives and HR departments on talent acquisition and retention strategies daily. What I consistently find is that they understand much about "what" people want and very little about "why" people stay, contribute and perform. In other words, they focus on the things that they believe matter to candidates/employees (salary, commute, benefits, flexible hours, upward mobility, etc.) without seeking to understand why those things matter. By making such assumptions and failing to push and empower employees to charge their own engagement, a greater opportunity is missed.

Once again, Gallup has released its findings on the state of employee engagement in the US and the numbers are as mind-boggling as ever. According to their 2013 State of the American Workplace report, 70% of US workers are either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" at work. The projected cost in lost productivity is estimated to be as much as $550 billion annually. To put that in context, this equates to approximately $3800 in lost productivity per US employee per year (according to BLS employment statistics). No company, regardless of size, is thrilled to see productivity and revenue evaporate, but as a small business owner and manager of several employees, this number is particularly material to me. Similar analyses of employee engagement within the last several years suggested lost productivity was in the range of $300-400 Billion annually. What's driving this profound increase?

I've heard many times that an engaged employee is one who understands his/her place in the organization and fully comprehends how they contribute to and participate in the firm's execution of its Mission and Vision. Dr. David Farrar, Managing Partner of Koliso, a Minneapolis based HR consulting firm, has worked extensively with companies addressing this issue and states that it is critical to give employees the "freedom, discretion and opportunity to be creative." He goes on to state that what companies are truly asking candidates for is their "extra effort" and there is often a tradeoff as companies pursue efficiency and employees pursue happiness. This leads into what is ultimately the next level of employee engagement. An engaged employee is one who also sees how his/her job contributes to their individual pursuit of what matters most and fits within the larger framework of their own personal lives. My father, for example, worked 32 years with the same company. As the sole provider to a young son and a wife with Multiple Sclerosis, his needs were well-defined. He was expected to perform, but his career afforded him a decent salary, excellent benefits, stability and the flexibility to never miss a doctor's appointment with his wife or a baseball game with his son. The nature of his work didn't necessarily set his soul on fire, but the expectations of both sides were clear, his priorities were met and engagement followed.

The apathetic or non-engaged employee sees both his role in the company and the company's role in his/her life as two completely independent, non-reciprocating functions. Either is, frankly speaking, replaceable. The disengaged employee is not only largely unfulfilled, but actually sees their job as somehow getting in the way of or inhibiting their individual progress, passion or purpose. Think of the most disengaged person you've ever had the pleasure of working with. They likely had a million things they would rather do, a million ways to do those things better, and a million places they'd rather do both.

For most, a job or career is not the reason they wake up every day, but rather an enhancement, hopefully, to their lives. A lot has changed since my father worked, both with companies and employees. We're finding that the emerging workforce of Gen X'ers, Gen Y'ers and Millennials not only desire engagement, but demand it. Stop down here in Louisiana and ask one of my Process Engineers with Chemical or Oil & Gas experience if they'll settle for a job that doesn't completely fulfill their personal and professional objectives. They'd likely tell you that a 10-minute drive through Baton Rouge's Chemical Plant corridor would give them 20 reasons why they have absolutely no reason to settle. Add in the emerging technical skills gap in heavy manufacturing, engineering, IT and similar industries and we have an entirely new article.

Am I saying that in order to buck the trend of increasing employee disengagement, business leaders and managers will need to set a warm cozy fire and propitiate and mollycoddle each of their employees to extract what's nearest and dearest to each of their hearts? Absolutely not. In fact, quite the contrary. The 70% of employees who wake up every day and consciously decide to return to a job and give less than they're capable, costing themselves, their employers and their economy billions in lost productivity, have some culpability as well. Unlike my father who carried the same company's flag for over three decades, I worked for numerous companies, most of which were industry leading Global firms that did their part to help enhance my engagement opportunities. But I had to be equally committed to the solution, and frankly, I wasn't. Engagement is not about happiness - that is a personal pursuit. It's about empowerment, connection and fit. And when leaders, managers and employees ALL adequately commit and employees take the time to not only find a place to work, but rather find their place with work, we'll see quantifiable change. The reason I do what I do every day helping companies find talent, helping talent find opportunities and helping them both find that synergizing reciprocating Fit is because that's where we'll find real opportunities to move the needle on employee engagement.

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.

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