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Employee Engagement — Your Competitive Advantage!


By Barbara Mitchell, managing partner of The Mitchell Group and co-author of “The Essential HR Handbook: A Quick and Handy Resource for Any Manager or HR Professional

As Fast Company reported in January  2013, disengaged workers cost the US economy $350 billion a year in lost productivity.  Savvy small business owners are looking for ways to ensure that they have a fully engaged workforce because the evidence is clear — people who are fully engaged in their work and committed to their employer provide a competitive advantage, including higher productivity and reduced turnover.

In addition to the huge financial costs associated with disengaged workers, small business employers know that a worker’s commitment to their company is an indicator of how long the person plans to stay with that employer!  As the economy improves, your employees may have more options available to them and the last thing you want is to have your most valued employees thinking about leaving you — you want them engaged in their work and committed to your organization!  Engagement and employee retention are linked!

Here are some tips on how to fully engage your employees in the work that you do:

Ask your “star” employees why they stay with your organization.

Most organizations do interviews when people leave them and, while exit interviews can be valuable, we believe asking people why they stay can provide you with much better information.  Why people stay gives you good insights into what you are doing right and then you can do more of that to further engage your staff!

Let employees know where the organization is headed and where they fit into your future plans.

People want to know where they fit into your future plans and how they can make a contribution. Most employees really do want to add value to your organization.  Be open and transparent to your employees. Let them know when times are tough and ask for their ideas.  You will be amazed at what you can learn from your employees if you just ask and then treat their suggestions seriously. This is not to say you have to do everything that is suggested — just let people know if an idea will be considered and if not, why not!

Ensure pay and benefits are competitive and focused on what your workforce needs/wants at this time. 

Participate in salary and benefits surveys in your markets to be sure you are paying fairly and that your benefits package is as good as it can be. Don’t overlook the fact that from time to time you may need to enhance your benefits.  Talk with your benefits broker about benefits you can add at no cost to you.

Focus on employee career growth and development — even in difficult times. 

Many employee development opportunities don’t cost anything (such as mentoring).  This is critical, especially to your Millennials and other younger workers — they thrive on career development so don’t disappoint them or they will most likely leave and find opportunities elsewhere.  In addition to mentoring, consider offering lateral moves, task force assignments and other no cost ways to offer development opportunities to your high potential employees. Don’t overlook the value of promoting from within when you have a job opening.  Most employees are looking for career advancement so when you go outside your organization to fill an open position and overlook internal talent, a message is sent that “there is no place for me here.” Consider on- the- job training, cross-training opportunities, stretch goals and other low cost strategies to provide strategic development opportunities.  Your employees will be more engaged in their work and in your organization’s success if they feel they are improving their skill set!

Recognize and reward top performers openly. Re-recruit your good people constantly by telling them how important they are to the organization.

You probably know that you have a few (or many) key employees who are extremely valuable to your success.  Do they know how valuable they are to your organization?  Smart small business owners develop strategies to retain their superstars!  Think about when and how you recognize good performance. Is it only at annual review time or are your managers giving performance feedback every day?  Do you have recognition programs to acknowledge when employees go above and beyond is expected?  Rewarding talent is a critical part of a well-crafted engagement strategy.  Find ways to recognize performance that exceeds expectations.  Give feedback — both positive and negative — often and honestly!  Remember to praise in public and provide developmental feedback (negative) in private!

Make your employees proud of your organization — be a good corporate citizen.

What does your organization do to give back to your community?  Today’s workers, especially Millennials, are very interested in volunteer opportunities and giving back. This is a great way to build your team by involving them in community activities. Is there a charity that is especially significant to your business?  For example, I know of a health care firm that annually supports the March of Dimes by doing a fundraising walk.  They don’t just sign up people to walk; they put their employees in teams to compete before the walk to see who can log the most steps in a month.  The winning team gets a prize and the individual who has the most steps also gets a prize.  In addition to raising money for the March of Dimes, this serves as a team building and morale boost for the staff – and it is fun!

Provide management training to anyone who supervises people — strong line supervisors are the key to maximizing employee engagement.

We are well aware that employees don’t leave organizations, the leave managers.  A well trained manager can make a huge difference in employee engagement and retention. Be sure everyone in your organization who manages people is prepared to manage.  Provide ongoing opportunities for managers to improve their skills and don’t assume that because someone is a good individual contributor, h/she will necessarily be a good manager!  There are ways to develop your managers in a cost-effective manner.  Consider having a strong manager mentor a new manager.  Find low-cost training programs at your local community college.  Books on tape, webinars, and industry conferences can also provide skill development.

Review your hiring practices to ensure new hires are proud they chose your organization.

Ask your new hires what could have been done differently in the hiring and on-boarding processes and then revise your procedures to maximize effectiveness.  Engagement and retention start in the hiring process so use this opportunity to make a good impression.  Be sure your website and all recruiting materials send the message that you value your employees!

Review your on-boarding process and evaluate how you bring new hires into your culture. 

One easy way to do this is to have a focus group of people who have joined your organization in the last year or so.  Ask them to tell you what they would have liked to have known as they started work for your business.  Think about the last time you had a “first day” or “first week” in a new job — what questions did you have?  Then, take time to bring your new hire processes in line with what will get employees up to speed as quickly as possible.  You want to maximize productivity and to do that, you need to be sure people feel comfortable and know where to go to get the information they need.  On-boarding is not handing a new hire a lot of material to read and putting them in the conference room to study it — it is so much more!

Your organization’s culture is a huge driver of employee engagement.

Your culture is defined by how you manage and lead.   Do you use your culture as a reason not to try something new — perhaps something that is suggested by your employees that might have a positive impact on your bottom line?  Are your managers good listeners?  Do you celebrate successes?  Do you have fun at work?  Do you allow your employees to have a life outside work or do you expect full devotion 24/7?  Do you value diversity and what it brings to the organization?  Are your managers friendly and approachable to all?  Keep in mind that corporate culture can be changed and one person can have a major impact on culture.  Consider how changing your culture, even in a small way, might increase employee engagement.  Create a culture of engagement by communicating the value of employee engagement to your team and by being sure your values include a commitment to your staff and the role they play in your success!

Study companies like Zappos and Google to learn what they do to maximize employee engagement.

Yes, it is easy to discount their success by saying they are huge, well-funded companies so what can I possibly learn from them?  We believe there is a great deal small businesses can learn from these and other successful organizations about employee engagement.  Take time to read books or articles with an open mind.  Start with “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose” by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, Inc. — it will inspire you to look at your employees in a new way!

So, what are you doing to engage your employees?  Odds are there is more you could do so start today and see what a difference engaged workers can make to your bottom line!


Barbara Mitchell is a human resources professional and management consultant who is a recognized expert in the HR field. She is co-author of “The Essential HR Handbook: A Quick and Handy Resource for Any Manager or HR Professional“. Prior to co-founding The Millennium Group International, LLC, much of her HR career was spent with Marriott International. She is now managing partner of The Mitchell Group, an HR consulting practice.