Employee Engagement: An HR Leader's Program Overview

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Jack Bucalo

There are many different definitions of employee engagement.  However, at its most fundamental yet essential level, it can be defined as:

                Having employees feel that they are doing meaningful work that makes an

                important difference while also satisfying their personal life and job/career

                aspirations AND, simultaneously, helping the department to achieve its

                business objectives and the company to achieve its strategic vision and plan.

Successful employee engagement requires the use of a fully integrated and comprehensive set of programs that are designed to produce improvement which will likely occur over a period of years.  In the end, achieving such improvement is a lot like a company achieving improvement in product quality, customer service, innovation, and so on - it takes years to develop such a reputation; though it can be lost in only a few days.  Therefore, it should be considered a top management initiative and not an HR program.  If the HR Leader has limited resources, he or she must convince the CEO to provide the additional resources to implement such a program or systematically prioritize and implement particular programs year after year until all are functioning together.

To fully understand the integration of all these programs, we will examine each one within the context of the appropriate part of the above definition.

Employees feel that they are doing meaningful work that makes an important difference

1.  Corporate Culture - almost everything in a company's corporate culture statement evolves from the CEO and line executives actions (not words) regarding management style, interpersonal behaviors (not attitudes) and business values (items the company wants to be known for that directly support the business).  If the actions of the executives are inconsistent or counter to the words used in the statement, you are better off without it.  You can get input from other companies and outside sources, but the input from your executives is critical to having an actionable document.  For every item in the statement, you should be able to cite two or three practical examples of how the item was utilized in actual management actions.  The final document should be published throughout the company by any and all means.  Here are some typical items to consider.

Management StyleInterpersonal BehaviorsBusiness Values
ParticipationIntegrity/HonestyTechnology Leader
AccessibilityHard-workingProduct Quality
Open DoorAgility/Change-orientedMarket-driven
Promotion from withinTrustworthyCustomer Care

DignityMeaningful work

2.  On Boarding - HR Leaders must work with the hiring managers to identify the key new hires and/or positions that will require special attention throughout the process.  Emphasizing that the company's goal is to provide every employee with meaningful work is critically important, but demonstrating just how that is achieved is equally important.

The first step, and by far THE most important step in On Boarding, is to insure that the right person has been hired in the first place.  A thorough and exhaustive recruitment and interviewing process is needed so that the person selected is technically-capable of performing the key duties of the job, along with exhibiting most of the management skills, interpersonal behaviors and business values outlined in the corporate culture.  Hiring the RIGHT person is the goal so using a diverse but relevant group of interviewers from the inside and outside the department who know the job best is needed.  Overcoming a poor selection is far worse than leaving the job open for another two months or so.  The second step should be to emphasize and explain in detail the fringe benefits that are most important to the new hire.  The third step should be to emphasize the major aspects of the Corporate Culture that directly relate to the meaningful work in the job itself.  The fourth step is to agree with the hiring manager on the key duties of the position as outlined in the Job Description.  Here the hiring manager can elaborate in writing on the key work projects that the employee will undertake during the first 180 days or so and the training that was promised during the interviewing process.  These key work projects will then serve as the basis for a 30, 60, 120 or 180 day review with the new hire which should be conducted by the HR and hiring manager together.  In these reviews, the new hire should be allowed to discuss any obstacles or drawbacks that he or she might have observed that could affect the work itself or the promised training.  The fifth step should be to outline several logical job/career paths that can be followed over the next few years so that the new hire can easily visualize a path forward in his/her skills development and job/career growth.

3.  One-on-One Manager/Key Employee Interaction Meetings - for each key employee and/or key position, there should be regularly-scheduled manager/employee meetings (at least quarterly) to review the meaningful work being performed by the employee in each of the position's key duties.  The employee should review the specific details of the work that has been completed and identify any obstacles or assistance that the manager can provide to insure that the work is completed in an exemplary manner on schedule.  This meeting  gives the manager an opportunity to reiterate the meaningful aspect of the employee's work and recognize its business value to the department and company.

4.  Employee Engagement Survey - in the age of social media where employees can publicly vent their problems and concerns about their jobs and company to the entire world, it is more important than ever to understand and respond to any major employee relations matters in a timely and constructive way. Utilizing an anonymous survey offers the best means to do just that.

There are several surveys available within a wide range in price that are supported by validated research.  Each company should review the various survey documents to determine which one best fits its needs.  Though real time surveys sound more advantageous, surveys implemented every six months followed by face-to-face meetings with your best employees on certain important survey findings is a much better approach.  It is critical that the survey document be particularized to meet a company's specific needs by including key questions that can be repeated in every upcoming survey which can serve as a statistical benchmark to determine future progress or regress.  It is critically important that there are questions for determining if the employee feels that he or she is:  a) doing meaningful work, b) feeling that their work has the opportunity of making a difference in the department, c) receiving appropriate skills and job training for the current job and d) sees a legitimate job/career path with the company.  Also, giving employees the opportunity to tell management anything they feel is important in an subjective and unencumbered fashion and being able to differentiate between supervisory, department and/or company problems or concerns is very important.

Lastly, and perhaps most critical, it is extremely important that the quantitative and narrative results of the survey be communicated back to the employees, warts and all.  In addition, major employee concerns and issues should be included in this major communications effort that stipulates the corrective management actions that are underway, as well as any face-to-face management/employee meetings to study a particularly-detailed concern or issue in greater depth so that recommendations can be made to management to effectively deal with it.  Providing detailed feedback on the survey results and management's actions to correct any major concern or problem to the employees every six months, and at intervening intervals if appropriate, is vital to the ongoing success of the program.  However, if a company's top management is not willing to publish the survey results and/or take the necessary corrective action to address the employee's major concerns or issues, do not implement the survey at all.

Satisfying the employee's developmental needs, and personal life and job/career aspirations

1.  Training and Development Planning section in the Performance Review document - think of it this way - an employee gives the company about 2,000 hours of work every year so why shouldn't company give back to the employee around 20 hours (only 1%) that deals with his/her development?  Here, the employee should be evaluated on the performance results achieved versus the objectives and key responsibilities of the position, additional individual and team accomplishments, along with the interpersonal behaviors and business values listed in the corporate culture statement.  If the employee is new to the position, the manager and the employee should concentrate on providing training to help improve current performance.  If the employee is performing well, they should concentrate on establishing training that relates to the next most logical job move.  In either case, the manager and employee should complete this portion of the document together.

2.  Work/Life Balance - wherever possible, the company should institute flexible-time, work at home, compensatory time off and any other reasonable policy that helps to meet the personal life needs of the majority of their key employees.  Also, each benefit in the fringe benefits package should have a specific cost/price attached to it based on its cost to the company.  Then, a specific total dollar amount of all benefits could be established for each employee and he or she would be allowed to choose the particular benefits that are important to their personal life situation, up to the specific total dollar amount.

3.  Mentoring - certain key technical, professional and management people desire the opportunity to learn from more experienced professionals and managers  in the company who have been successful in their jobs.  Each key employee should be assigned a mentor that he/she can contact for advice regarding any job or career-related matter.  In addition to identifying any specific job-related training, both parties can explore various job/career paths within the company that represent a logical upward job/career path move for the employee.  Such a mentor will coordinate his or her efforts directly with employee's supervisor at all times.

Any mentoring program should be thoroughly outlined in writing to provide proper guidance to the employees, mentors and supervisors.  Separately, an appropriate HR leader can conduct Stay Interviews of selected key professional and managerial employees as-needed when it is determined that a key employee is dissatisfied with any aspect of his/her employment.

Helping the department to achieve its business objectives

1.  Performance Results section in the Performance Review document - since the employee typically desires to perform meaningful work, it is the responsibility of his/her manager to select appropriate important work projects and assignments within each key job duty that can easily be identified as being meaningful and important to the entire department, and provide necessary assistance to insure that the work is completed within quality, cost and time parameters.  The establishment of specific business objectives for each key employee whose work is critical to the success of the department is vital.  Clearly, the fair evaluation of the performance results achieved by the employee, along with the interpersonal behaviors and business values utilized to achieve those results is critical because it provides the sound basis for any future upward promotional advancement.

Also, the manager should seek out the advice of certain key employees regarding their thoughts on various departmental work objectives, problems and issues.  Asking the questions "What do you think about ... ?" or "What would you recommend regarding ... ?" are very useful tools to facilitate such discussions.

2.  Rewards, Recognition and Celebration - for individual, team or department work performance, there should be sufficient financial rewards (merit increase add-ons, spot and annual bonuses, and stock awards) and non-financial rewards (departmental parties, promotions, award ceremonies and team results celebrations) for management to use appropriately.  It is  very important to visibly demonstrate to all company employees that improved individual and department performance is recognized and appreciated by management.

3.  Innovation Workshops - to help foster improved engagement within the department, these workshops allow employees the opportunity to express their ideas for departmental work improvement in a constructive and collaborative manner while working together as a team.

Helping the company to achieve its strategic vision and plan

1.  Company Strategic Vision and Plan - almost all employees want to be proud of their company.  To facilitate that pride and fully engage them in their job-related work efforts to help the company succeed, it is imperative that all employees be aware of its strategic vision which should be stated in writing and published for all employees to see.  At times, such statements can be very esoteric and nebulous in nature to the point where its meaning is unclear.   Rather, such a vision statement should succinctly stipulate the company's existing and future products and/or services that are or will be sold into an existing and/or future market in response to verifiable market needs.  The statement should emphasize that the company's Board of Directors and CEO have fully approved and endorsed it.

In support of the vision, the CEO and top management will typically develop the company's strategic plan that will outline various financial and operating objectives and plans which are designed to accomplish the vision.  Since the key members of top management will actively participate in the development of the plan, it will be one that they believe in and are committed to for its successful execution.  Though many parts of the strategic plan are likely to be considered confidential, just the disclosure of its existence and the publication of as much of it as possible will greatly facilitate employee engagement, recognizing that any disclosure will be at the CEO's discretion.

2.  Succession Planning and High Potential Programs - the development, retention and advancement (in both promotional progress and compensation) of the executives included in these programs is vitally important to short and long term company success and growth.  At least annually, the HR leader should update the data in each program, meet with each executive to reassess their job/career aspirations, meet with the executive's superior to develop a personalized development plan for the upcoming year, insure that the superior reviews the plan with the executive, track all agreed-upon development and work with the superior to insure that it occurs on schedule, help insure that they compensated well above the average and, most importantly, work with their superiors throughout the year when appropriate promotional and compensation opportunities present themselves.


With the potentially very harmful effect of negative employee viewpoints about their jobs, departments and the company being aired inside the company and on social media in today's highly competitive and fast-changing business world, the need for a fully integrated and comprehensive employee engagement program that directly addresses these viewpoints has never been greater.  Implementing such a far reaching program and effectively dealing with all employee viewpoints on an on-going basis is likely to take a sustained effort on the part of top management for a period of years which recognizes and reinforces the fact that this is a top management and company issue, and not just an HR program.