He's Just Not That Into You: What Employees Really Think of Their Employers

By Martin Staubus (Republished with permission from the Beyster Institute)

“Dear John, I know you want me – I know you need me, but sorry, but the chemistry just isn’t there.”

According to a recent survey conducted by Aon Consulting, that’s the message most employees have for their employers. They’re just not that into you. Less than one-third of employees are “engaged” in their work, and two in five would not recommend their company to a friend as a place to work.

The term “employee engagement” has been a leading buzz phrase in human resource circles for several years now.  Its meaning is a bit fuzzy, but the commentary certainly suggests that, whatever it is, it’s a very good thing and employers should aspire to it. To get some clarity, The Conference Board took on the subject, leading to a formal report published in 2006 entitled “Employee Engagement, A Review of Current Research and Its Implications.”  It turns out that each preceding employee engagement research study had defined the term differently and, as a result, had identified different drivers and different implications.  Having digested and synthesized the results of 12 major studies on the subject, The Conference Board settled on its own definition of employee engagement: “a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his or her work.”

What they are talking about is attitude – emotional orientation.  Engaged employees are those who display the right kind of attitude in the workplace.  But what sort of attitude – and about what, exactly?  Some seem to focus on the employee’s attitude towards the company; others seem to focus on the employee’s attitude about his work.  Is an employee engaged if he thinks the company is a wonderful organization, run by benevolent managers who pay him extremely well, but that the work he has been assigned is trivial and boring? How about the inverse: an employee who is doing important work that inspires him, but he pursues that work for an organization that he holds in contempt, run by venal managers? 

Not surprisingly, the various studies that The Conference Board reviewed collectively came up with no fewer than 26 “key drivers” of employee engagement.   This has left employers implementing random tricks and tactics in an effort to boost engagement.   How about a game room so employees will enjoy being at work?  A recent edition of Workspan magazine touted charitable giving by the company as a way to get employees to feel positively about their employer and thus engaged.  Employee of the month awards?   Sensitivity training for supervisors?  No wonder the Aon survey found that less than a third of employees are engaged – whatever that is.

So Simple a Child Could Do It

Human resource professionals who are also the parents of small children often report a perplexing experience.  On the job, they pursue continuing education to learn about what makes people tick in the workplace.  At home, they learn about what child psychologists say is behind the vexing behaviors of their young children.  The two lessons are often essentially the same.  Our emotional needs and issues, it seems, go back to our earliest years.  Research and experience seem to make clear that what our four-year-old at home wants and what our forty-year-old at work wants is: a) to feel that they are part of an important, worthwhile group – something larger than themselves; and b) to feel appreciated, valued and respected within that group for their contributions as a teammate.   The discussion around the topic of employee engagement, it seems, dances around these twin aspirations.  Truly engaged employees feel that they are part of an organization whose purpose, vision and conduct they truly respect, and who also feel that, within the organization, they are appreciated and respected both as a person and for the work they do there.

Engagement and Employee Ownership

 We are not aware of any studies that have been done to measure the extent of employee engagement specifically at companies that practice employee ownership.  The collective experience of Beyster Institute consultants indicates, however, that the average is considerably more than one in three engaged employee-owners.  Before we credit the practice of employee ownership with making all the difference in this regard, we should acknowledge that there may be other factors at work.  It may be reasonable to assume, for example, that business leaders who are thoughtful enough, perceptive enough, and employee-focused enough to implement employee ownership in the first place might be leaders who would practice an employee-centric style of management even in the absence of employee ownership.

Still, employee ownership has attributes that inherently foster employee engagement.  If we think of employee engagement in terms of the two considerations noted above – being part of an organization you respect, and feeling respected by the people of the organization – we can see that employee ownership contributes to both of these dimensions.  When you own an interest in a business and you are empowered to help shape the fortunes of that business through participative practices like open-book management, you tend to see greater significance in the organization and how it fares – a greater sense of purpose in your work and your team’s work.  In contrast, playing the role of hired help who is brought in to do work for the benefit of an organization owned by others is less likely to leave you feeling that you are contributing to a cause that you see great purpose in.

It is equally apparent that employee ownership tends to foster a sense that employee-owners are respected within the organization.   Being an owner, after all, is inherently a role that carries an enhanced sense of dignity and status relative that of a mere employee.  It represents a kind of citizenship in the organization that is frequently denied to those in traditional employee roles.  And, if legal ownership is enhanced with participative involvement – practices that keep employee-owners well-informed of business activity and call for their input – employee-owners will likely feel that they matter to the organization, and that they are respected as contributing partners.

There are many reasons why individuals may see an organization as having a compelling purpose that engages them.  People who carry a strong sense of moral purpose and a desire to make the world a better place may find compelling cause in organizations that fight to end world hunger or eradicate disease.  The sense that they are pursuing a critical mission, and manifestly making a difference in the world, is frequently enough to generate abundant employee engagement.  In a more prosaic profit-driven business venture, however, creating an environment in which employees feel engaged requires an entirely different set of conditions.   When it comes to that challenge, employee ownership provides a big leg up.

Aon Consulting Survey: As reported in Workspan magazine, Pelosi and Bunker, March 2009, published by WorldatWork.