Bamboo HR Elevate Summit: Employee Disengagement is Killing your Company

Snowbird—Employee disengagement is rampant, and it’s killing your company. That’s the bad news. The good news? It’s relatively easy to fix.

Jill Christensen, employee engagement expert and author of “If Not You, Who? Cracking the Code of Employee Disengagement,” spoke as part of the Elevate Summit, Bamboo HR’s user conference this Wednesday. Employee disengagement numbers are staggering, she said—up to 71 percent of U.S. workers say that they are disengaged with their jobs, according to Gallup, and the numbers worldwide are even higher than that.

“There is a global employee disengagement crisis,” said Christensen. “There’s nothing worse than despising your job and having to go to work. It’s something that’s an epidemic around the globe.”

Christensen likened the numbers to a crew team: of ten people on the boat, three of them are actively rowing, five of them are staring at the scenery and two are actively trying to sink the boat. This corresponds, she said, to the data: around 30 percent of employees in the U.S. are engaged, 50 percent are disengaged, and 18 percent are actively disengaged. Even more troubling? Thirty-five percent of Gallup’s survey respondents indicated that they would forgo a significant pay raise to see their superior fired.

C-level executives are largely aware that there’s a problem, said Christensen, but in the past thirty years, very little has been done constructively to change anything. Why?

“I believe I know why that is. In my humble opinion, it’s because senior leaders outsource culture to HR. It’s not a dig. I love strategic HR people,” she said. “But the truth is, although you own culture, you don’t own culture. There is no group of people that sets the stage more for how we do things here than your senior leaders. They own culture, but they don’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole.”

In order to drive real change, HR professionals need to come to their senior management with data. Letting the c-suite know how pressing and immense the problem of employee disengagement is, and the need for strategic HR initiatives, will speak to savvy leaders, she said. Employers know they need engaged employees who give discretionary effort, because that “above and beyond” effort is what drives business results, allows employees to constructively recommend improvements to the company or the company itself to others, Christensen said. Engaged employees are the best brand ambassadors—meanwhile, disengaged managers are three times as likely to have disengaged employees under them, and disengaged employees are four times as likely to leave a company.

“What does that look like, when two-thirds of your employees are disengaged? Decreased customer satisfaction, retention, productivity, and stagnant or decreased revenue growth. We know there’s a direct correlation between employee engagement and results. The companies growing the fastest have the highest level of employee engagement,” said Christensen, adding that a high level of engagement is not what people expect it to be. “If 65 percent of your employees are engaged, you are best in class, according to Gallup.”

Nobody starts off disengaged, she continued. People start their jobs and feel energized, with plans to be employees of the week, month, year or decade. Most new hires are excited to give the company their full effort, but over time, a company’s culture chips away at them and ruins their engagement levels. Christensen compares it to a bad relationship, where the first date goes swimmingly but everything else slowly deflates and disappoints over time.

To refresh the relationship, Christensen says that leadership absolutely must be ready to lead the charge. If not, getting true engagement—where employees trust in management and believe the company’s values are in line with their own—will be impossible. Senior leadership needs to be able to look in the mirror and assess whether they, and their managers, are confident, courageous, present and optimistic in their dealings with their employees.

“If you are leading an employee engagement revolution in your company, and you want employees to trust in your senior leaders—and you’re distracted? That won’t happen,” said Christensen. “Think about these four traits. Where is your strength and where is your weakness? We all have development areas.”

After that internal process is accomplished, the strategy can continue. Christensen recommends a four-step process that begins with companies taking a look at their hiring and firing processes. “Is the right person in every chair?” she asked. She stressed that firing can be just as important as hiring, as engaged employees can see that a toxic individual is never developed or fired and it erodes trust and faith in management.

“[Toxic attitudes] don’t belong in your company,” she said. “They can’t lead to save their lives. Develop them or get them out, because every single person in your organization knows that they are a cancer. They can name them on their fingers… by not dealing with [the toxic employee], you are chipping away at the trust in your senior leaders. And they’re right.”

Next, Christensen recommended streamlining and aligning goals. Every employee in the company should see how their job and goals further those of the company, thereby creating a meaningful emotional connection. “Everyone wants to do meaningful work,” she said.

Then, take a look at your company’s communication culture. It’s easy for senior leaders to always feel like they’re doing a good job, said Christensen, if they’re always communicating outwardly, but receiving no feedback. Employees—especially Millennial employees—appreciate two-way communication, where they feel heard. That feedback will only help a company, said Christensen, as many employees are much closer to the company’s end consumer or user than senior management is.

Finally, Christensen underscored the importance of recognizing people. No amount, she said, of random free swag—or of Ping-Pong tables or office beers—will make an employee feel like they are doing good work if they are not recognized individually for their efforts. And that recognition, she continued, can be as simple as a one-on-one thank you, or applause for their achievement.

“All of your employees are human beings. On some level, humans are wired the same way. For the most part, what disengages and deflates you disengages and deflates me. What engages and inflates you, engages and inflates me,” said Christensen. “We are all people. At the core, if you want to reengage your employees, you have to show them they have a workplace where their values are aligned, and where they have a voice that is listened to, and where they have recognition for a job well done. You need to meet their basic needs. It’s that simple.”