Engagement Starts Before Day One

Why do so many highly qualified individuals fail to fit in with a team or deliver results? Odds are it’s because they are not engaged at the beginning of their recruitment, when it’s most likely to impact their success.

Lack of engagement often can be traced back to hiring and on-boarding practices. Many companies never consider probing whether an applicant has the potential to become an engaged employee — one who identifies with the company’s goals, values and culture.

Instead, organizations focus solely on criteria such as education, skills and experience, with the assumption that well-qualified candidates will automatically become engaged. Further, firms tend to undervalue concepts such as employee engagement despite studies that show improved performance can be directly related to it.

Consider a 2011 study by Accenture, “What Executives Really Need to Know About Employee Engagement.” The study’s authors wrote, “A workforce that is highly engaged is the engine driving the gains in profitability and productivity that are critical to business success in a competitive global environment.” However, employee engagement is often overlooked during initial screening and hiring. This disconnect keeps both employees and companies from reaching their full potential.

“Half of the recruiting effort should focus on skills and abilities,” said Marsha King, a senior human resources professional with SkillPoint Consulting, a Chicago-based executive development firm. “The other half should focus on a candidate’s ability to be engaged in the organization. It is easier to find someone with the right skills than to find someone with the right attitude and passion to be engaged.”

Connect Performance With Engagement
Employees often demonstrate engagement by the extent to which they endorse an organization as a good place to work and do business. A belief in the organization coupled with the drive to perform well must be created during the hiring process and continue through on-boarding to sustain engagement throughout the employee lifecycle.

In a 2011 study, “The Engagement/Performance Equation,” The Aberdeen Group’s Mollie Lombardi found a direct connection between employee engagement and performance management. “The goal for both is to create alignment between the needs, desires, skills and activities of individuals and what the business requires to achieve results,” she said. But, as the study explained, achieving such a balance “can be difficult to discern.”

Numerous studies show the link between engagement and organizational performance. Global professional services firm Towers Watson’s 2012 “Talent and Rewards: Employee Surveys” study said more engaged employees tend to drive improved productivity and financial results.

However, a May 2011 Towers Watson study, “Employee Engagement and the Transformation of the Health Care Industry,” said that “to drive employee engagement successfully, it’s necessary to create the kind of work environment and support system that gives people what they need to perform consistently at their peak.”

The Functional Drivers of Engagement
Most research in employee engagement tends to focus on the organization’s perspective. “The Dynamics of Employee Engagement,” a July 2012 study by Dale Carnegie Training, focused on employees’ perspectives. It discussed how organizations can create an environment that enables employee engagement in the workplace, gathering input from 1,500 employees to find what variables affected their level of engagement.

An examination of the data revealed three functional drivers critical to create higher levels of engagement:

Direct connection with the immediate supervisor: Highly engaged employees indicated their immediate supervisor cares about them as a person, displaying concern about their personal life and its impact on their job.

Belief in senior leadership: Employees indicated they feel engaged when they believe senior management is taking the organization in the right direction. They also appreciate when senior leaders show respect for their opinions and maintain open lines of communication.

Pride in the organization: Employees indicated they feel higher levels of engagement when the organization displays concern about their welfare and values.

Organizations can leverage these three engagement drivers in the hiring process in four steps:

Build pride in the organization. The steps of the hiring process should clarify the employee brand. Clearly state what makes the organization unique, and use that brand heavily during recruitment.??

• Build connection with the hiring manager. Managers need to make time in the interviewing process to talk about the values and culture of the organization and team, explain the job, discuss the work environment and highlight the importance of interaction.

• Build confidence in senior leadership. Early in the hiring process, it is important for candidates to gain a sense of the organization’s direction and the strength of senior leadership. This may mean capturing comments from executives or developing a short video featuring senior executives discussing the company’s vision. Show the value of employees in achieving that vision.

• Pay attention to the small things. Everyone who interacts with a candidate should be looking for signs the person can connect to the team, its values and the organization’s purpose. A potential hire who is overly self-involved or more focused on compensation than the organization’s direction is unlikely to become fully engaged.

During on-boarding companies also can continue to grow the seeds for engagement through the following:

• Connect the new hire to the supervisor, team and organization immediately. This may seem obvious, but nothing is worse for a new hire than to be placed in a new situation without feeling an early connection to the work team and organization.

• Provide a clear plan for the on-boarding process. The new hire should know the schedule of events, initial assignments and the types of information to be gathered during the first few weeks of employment.

• Paint an exciting picture of the organization’s vision and direction. When possible, have the highest-level executive associated with a new employee be part of the on-boarding process to explain the organization’s direction and the new employee’s importance in achieving company goals.

• Inspire them. This is perhaps the most important step in the process and requires a team effort. Be sure that all people who interact with new employees during on-boarding view their interaction as a means of inspiration. Help new employees see that engagement is as much about them as it is the organization. Clearly communicate how their efforts contribute to team and organizational success.

Further, listen and respond to new hire input. Coach them how to fit in with the team immediately. Encourage positive team communication formally in work activities and informally during breaks. According to Dale Carnegie Training research, the result from these proactive steps is that engaged employees are more energized about going to work and committed to doing whatever is required to make the company a success.

Lessons Learned
In his 2012 book Employee Engagement 2.0: How to Motivate Your Team for High Performance, Kevin Kruse lists 28 research studies from companies such as Gallup, Kenexa and the Corporate Leadership Council, each of which confirms that organizations with a high percentage of engaged employees report greater staff retention, more satisfied customers and higher sales. The studies point to exemplary companies in this regard.

For instance, consider Southwest Airlines, which has a brand strategy that emphasizes employees living the corporate brand and delivering high-quality customer service. The airline consistently scores among the highest in on-time flights and customer service. It also often publicly thanks its workers for these results.

Another is Apple, which consistently refers to the tireless dedication and “genius” of its employees, particularly with regard to its customer service efforts. An August article in Slate mentions the company’s Genius Bar, “where bright-faced young geeks win customers’ hearts and build brand loyalty that Apple’s competitors can’t match.”

Analyzing customer satisfaction should be considered a barometer of the extent of employee engagement. High levels of satisfaction indicate that customers are pleased not only with the quality of the product or service, but also with the professionalism of those who provide it.

Both of these organizations focus their hiring and on-boarding processes around building their employee brand. They connect key engagement drivers from the first interview through the full on-boarding phase to ensure they are bringing on people who represent their brand effectively. This focus on engagement and employee fit is of primary concern while the procedural and tactical aspects of hiring are molded to fit this driving goal.

As “The Dynamics of Employee Engagement” shows, as many as 70 percent of U.S. employees feel disengaged in the workplace. These feelings are to be expected when the three major drivers of engagement are ignored. That is why the immediate supervisor and the highest available senior leader associated with each role need to take an active part during employee hiring and on-boarding. Nothing is worse from the employee’s perspective than feeling unappreciated and distant from those in formal leadership positions.

Changing demand in both customers and markets requires that employees be flexible, connected, creative and able to get things done. A highly engaged work environment unleashes confidence, enthusiasm, inspiration and empowerment — powerful triggers for a company’s success. These emotions are also the most likely to drive sustainable engagement, beginning with the hiring and on-boarding steps in the employee lifecycle.

Kevin J. Sensenig is global vice president, learning and organization development, for Dale Carnegie and Associates Inc. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.