07/09/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2014

It's Not Just About the Bagels: Building Employee Engagement (Pt. 2) -- To Understand Where You Want to Be, You Need to Know Where You Are Now

I think we've all had stories of bad employers and relationships that were not all that they were cracked up to be, or, as I call it, "engagement gone bad."

My experience came in late 2007.

My employer at the time was in the final stages of an acquisition. Although I was quite busy with all the activities that went along with this, I was also actively looking for my next opportunity. I had been interviewing and was on my third interview with one particular advertising/media company. My initial interview was over the telephone, and I really enjoyed the discussion with the recruiter. As far as these initial discussions or "screening" interviews go, I've found that, most of the time, recruiters tend to be quite professional and knowledgeable, trying softly to sell you on the company.

The next round was also on the telephone, about two weeks later, and again, I found the recruitment manager to be personable. I was beginning to really like the company at this point, and my interest was piqued. I guess I did well, because a few days later I was scheduled to come into the New York office and meet with some members of the recruitment team. I was impressed by the casual environment, people working hard at their computers; a certain relaxed and creative atmosphere engulfed the office. I connected with the team, and about two weeks later I was scheduled to have a call with the VP of HR. That call went OK, but it was not the best interview; she was tougher and harder to read over the phone.

Then came two weeks of silence. No word.

Two weeks had passed, and I decided to reach out to the recruiter, whom I had developed a good friendship with by now. She told me that they liked me, and that I would have to go through one more step: make a presentation to members of the executive team. I nailed this, but I still had to wait further, and during a trip to California, I made a special trip to meet the VP of HR, who had not witnessed my stunning presentation. At the end of the visit, I went home with an offer in hand.

Despite the long wait and the endless amount of interviews, I was excited. I was engaged.

I should have noticed the warning signs, though, and I believe my engagement was more about getting the job and being employed. Once an employee and on the inside, I began to notice the dysfunction and lack of engagement. Senior leadership was practically nonexistent. I kept remembering my first walk-through of the office with the office manager, who told me, "We have Bagel Wednesdays!" (So now you why I picked this as the title for my series of blog posts.)

No amount of bagels could make up for the incredible lack of leadership and engagement that existed at this company. I found it an odd contrast that one of the items touted was "Bagel Wednesdays" when not much attention was paid to anything else meaningful.

I've come to recognize that employees are savvy. While Bagel Wednesdays, Dress-Down Fridays and the like are important, they can also be superficial items that Band-Aid bigger issues that employers may not want, or may not know how, to face.

In my travels and working with people all over the globe I find a constant: Employees want to do a good job. In order to do so, however, they need the proper tools and information, and most importantly, they want to know that what they are doing matters. During times of change, engagement is even more critical.

Understand Where You Are and Where You Need to Be

What does success look like?

How will you know when you've achieved the engagement goals you've set for the organization?

How will you maintain engagement?

To understand where you want to be, you need to know where you are now.

Rather than guess, ask. Ask your employees through an employee opinion survey. You don't need to spend a lot on software to design and distribute to your population. I've had the best luck with tools like, where you can design your survey, format the survey, and choose whether you want questions in multiple-choice format, ranking, etc. You can also select which questions you require a response to.

I am reminded of the 12 questions developed by Gallup and highlighted in the book First Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. The 12 questions are:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had the opportunity at work to learn and grow?

Whichever tool you decide to use, be sure to incorporate these 12 questions in any survey you implement.

Communicate Confidentiality

Communicate to your employees that the survey responses are confidential. For companies with multiple offices, be sure that you at least ask the employee to identify their location. This will enable you to break out the responses and provide targeted data to your international managers as well as enabling you to determine which offices are doing well and which need further employee engagement.

Same Time, Different Year

Implement the survey annually, using the same exact questions year over year. This way you will be able to track your progress and areas that still need to be improved. There will always be areas that need improvement. The survey is a great way to determine those areas still requiring improvement, and use this as a platform for focusing and building the HR initiatives for the coming year.

Call to Action

Whatever you do, take action on the survey findings! Communicate the results of the survey; after all employees took the time to respond, they would also like to know the outcome -- both the good and the bad. Start with the positive and then communicate HR's and the company's plan as to how you will improve the areas that didn't do so well.

Don't overpromise and underdeliver. Pick and choose which areas to focus on. Go after the "low-hanging fruit" to get some small wins and make an immediate impact. Show your employees that you take this seriously.