Your Biggest Employee Engagement Challenge is AFTER the Economic Recovery

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Paul Hebert

We are all seeing the articles and survey data highlighting the rise in employee engagement levels. Some say it's due to employees hunkering down, working hard and making sure they keep their heads below the log so they don't get hit during the next round of layoffs. Some say that the layoffs have eliminated the "dead wood" and that remaining "engaged" employees are happy to be working with the cream of the crop now. Others are attributing employee engagement to an increase in attention to employees by companies worried about turnover and retention. I believe all of those reasons are true. also believe that most companies will be blindsided once the economy turns around and the employment situation looks better.

Negative Reciprocity

I'm not just saying this just to be contrary. In a vast majority of cases it may be too late to impact the mass exodus of employees that will occur once the employment situation is better. The reason is something I call the "rubber band effect," but psychologists might use a more scientific term—"negative reciprocity."

Reciprocity is an almost universal human trait that guides our behavior. If someone does something for us, we feel a bit indebted to do something for them. That's a positive. However, when someone doesn't reciprocate, or treats us poorly, we tend to look for ways to balance the equation including "doing them wrong." That's negative reciprocity. I believe that many of the tough measures companies have taken may be creating a negative balance of reciprocity that isn't reflected in the employee engagement surveys.

Giving More and Getting Less

First of all, the employment contract for many has been pretty stable for a while. I know that the last 10 years or so has seen some erosion of that contract but in many companies it's still been pretty much—"if I do a good job I won't be penalized." Unfortunately, this last economic downturn has been more severe than most, and the reactions from companies more pronounced. That, I believe, is causing a buildup of negative feelings that will be unleashed at some time.

Employees understand layoffs. Employees understand cutting back on travel expenses and office supplies. They may even understand the "no raises this year" memo from Human Resources.

But what they may not understand is reducing 401K matches—or eliminating them altogether. They won't understand why they have to take a month "off" unpaid—especially salaried workers whose workload doesn't stop and who are probably continuing to keep up with their work even while not getting a paycheck. What they don't understand is that they are negatively impacted and they don't see the connection to the work they are personally doing. And they are being negatively impacted in areas that were prime decision points when they took the job in the first place.

In other words...

"I'm working my *ss off—picking up the slack from the layoffs—and I'm getting less money and less benefits."

Stretch and Snap

No matter what recognition award I get, no matter how many times the boss tells me I'm great, no matter how many e-mails I get from human resources showing me the investment they are making in me—I am still spending more on medical, I have less in my retirement account and I can't afford college for my kids next year. The sacrifice is out of balance. I'm giving more—and getting less. The exact opposite of positive reciprocity.

"Hey—aren’t I supposed to get something from this sacrifice? And don't tell me I get to keep my job!"

Unfortunately, employees can only stretch too far before the huge negatives outweigh the smaller positives. And a "culture of recognition" can't completely bridge the chasm. Once your employees get the chance they will look to reduce their risk and find a place that has a track record of stability. At some point the rubber band will snap. And that will be when you will need your best employees the most—when the economic rebound happens.

What Can You Do?

  • First—and foremost—have a strong recruiting effort in place. Prepare for the worst. Start now to identify your "must" keep and find new talent for the pipeline. The best thing you can do is know it will happen.
  • Put initiatives in place to reward and recognize contributions. While it may be too late to impact all of your employees, some will see it as a way to offset the sacrifices they have already made.
  • Recognize and validate the sacrifices the employees have made. Make sure that the executive staff has made at least as much if not more—and don't give us the "gave up the executive washroom" crap. That will just add fuel to the fire. Make the sacrifices concrete and visible. You know your company and you know what falls into this category.
  • Talk, talk, talk—and then talk some more. Don't think one-way memos, e-mails and company newsletters will communicate the real issues. Have as many conversations with staff as possible—at all levels. More open and honest communication shows the employees you are concerned and you do understand.
  • Hold on. If I'm right, which I am (I thought I was wrong once but I was mistaken)—the amount of seat shifting that will occur when the economy improves will be "tsunamic." Some will win big by picking up great employees. Some will lose big, losing great employees.

But then again...

"Prediction is difficult, especially about the future."—Yogi Berra

Will we see the rubber band snap, or will it simply, slowly, quietly go back to its previous shape?