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Can HR Help Employee Engagement?

So far, over 10,000 people have downloaded 22 Surefire Ways to Boost Employee Engagement since I published it two years ago. The ebook is free. All I ask is that you explain in a few words what you’re working on. (And leave some contact details, in case we find your story so fascinating that we want to follow-up and write a special post dedicated to your problem.) I ask because I want to know who is researching employee engagement and why.

Thanks to all who gave honest and thoughtful answers, I am getting great examples of daily battles being waged on the engagement front. In the next few weeks and months, I’ll be running through individual cases and many of the common trends. As always, my goal is to give you a few good options for dealing with your problem—and protect you from the bad ones that will invite more problems.

We start today by asking:

Who are the best people in your company to solve the disengagement problem?

Judging by who is downloading my ebook, these are the people who think they are the best:

can HR help employee engagement

Not surprisingly, about a third are HR professionals. What’s interesting is the way they refer to themselves these days. Here are some of the job titles I’ve come across:

Human Relations, Staff Engagement, Advancement Officer, Human Capital Development, Business Performance Partner, Talent Administration, Workforce Strategy, Capability Development, Career Specialist, Change Manager, Culture and Communication, Learning and Performance, Strategic and Organizational Development, Employee Engagement and Culture, Diversity Manager, Head of Change, Head of Transformation, Learning and Development, Organizational Effectiveness, Organizational Learning, Organizational Change, Performance Development, People Engagement, Manager People and Culture, Wellness and Engagement, Total Rewards, Reward & Recognition and Organizational Effectiveness, and finally— People & Culture and Staff Care and Well Being Coordinator.

Something is going on inside HR departments. Is it part of a larger trend to get creative with job titles? Or could it be that HR is looking to reinvent itself to give us a more engaged higher-performing employee? And if so, how does it plan to go about it?

Judging by the titles, many organizations around the world have put their HR departments on high alert about flagging engagement. The result is that many are going after employee engagement directly. Like these folks, for example:

Job Title Working On Biggest Challenge at Work
HR Manager Employee Engagement Assisting managers to engage employees
Director of Strategic and Organizational Development Boosting employee engagement
Head of Transformation Refreshing our engagement strategy Budget reductions
HR Manager Working on ways to create an engaged workforce Building an engaged workforce and communications
Senior Manager - HR BUILDING EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT
HR/Admin Executive Coming up with series of engagement activities for the employees
AD Staff Engagement Disengaged staff
Manager HR Web search Driving employee engagement
HRM We experienced high attrition, low productivities and involvement of people are our concern. Employee attitude & behavior
Employee Engagement Officer To sustain engagement of employees in all office activities
Engagement Manager Making engagement a priority when time and financial goals along with a very extensive geographic distribution make it very hard to be taken seriously by employees and managers

Other HR leaders are taking on related concerns in hopes that engagement and other good things will follow. Up there in the table, we’ve got learning, development, culture, communications, rewards, and even employee wellness and well-being. Here are a few more responses:

Title Working on Biggest Challenge at Work
AGM HR Looking for ways to enhance employee engagement at my workplace Collaboration
HR Services Specialist Day to day employment relations. Communication
Associate Director, Human Resources Communication and Employee Morale due to Change
Director of Development Need for better collaborative tools and more employee engagement. Communications/employee empowerment
Human Resource Manager, Talent and Safety Employee engagement Employee recognition
Global Total Rewards Analyst Employee trust in leadership
GM HR & Admin Change Management & TPM Employee Cooperation & Loyalty

The good news is that companies—some, anyway—care enough about these issues to put someone in charge. The question is: will giving a problem a name and a face solve it? And you already know what I am going to say. Because the short answer is—

It depends.

It depends on the reasons for creating the job and the intent behind it. Is it the Employee Engagement Officer’s goal to promote change or to enforce the status quo? Even though HR is typically tasked with engagement tactics, it is top management who sets the agenda. So, anything HR is going to do will directly follow from what management believes to be the root cause of disengagement.

Here we have three possibilities.

  1. It’s an employee problem.
    In other words, if you moved your company to Alaska, or some other far-off land where you’d have a whole different set of employees, the problem would evaporate.
  2. It’s a company problem.
    It’s the nature of the work you do. Say, you are a collection agency, and your people have to deliver bad news all day every day. How on earth will you get them psyched about their jobs?
  3. It’s a company-employee relationship problem.
    The company and employees don’t see eye to eye on important issues. There is a breakdown in communication or a perceived conflict of interest. Employees’ physical, emotional or intellectual needs aren’t being met, while the company’s vital functions aren’t being served.

If the management blames the employees—but not to the tune of kidnapping the company—it will most likely look for a quick and dirty way to get them to march in lockstep. Hence, all the HR people with fancy titles searching the web for new tools and “employee engagement ideas” and asking management for extra spending money.

There are some fantastic tools and ideas out there, as well as some remarkably bad ones. The only way for you and your HR folks to tell them apart is to understand the specific reasons your people aren’t on board. And here’s something very important that’s been missing from most of the comments I get. As much as we all learn to use the same words—engagement, culture, attitude, morale—when describing workplace problems, the real problems—the ones you can actually solve—are completely unique to you and your people.

For example, “communication” and “change” get a lot of blame for bad feelings at work. But people aren’t upset just because of change, even a poorly communicated one. They are upset because their projects are on hold, or because they can’t find an answer to a customer’s question, or because their desk is next to the new copy machine and they hate all the noise and foot traffic…

There you have it.

Looking for “ideas” to fix “employee engagement” will leave you with something like one in a hundred chance to accidentally get it right. If you want better odds, you need to take a closer look at the problem before attempting a solution.

So, how do you take a closer look? If you are in HR, first you must realize that yours is not the best vantage point. Same for most executives. The best people to see the root cause of disengagement are the front-line managers and employees themselves.

While HR by itself can neither discover the real problem nor lead the charge to solve it, they can do a lot to make sure both of those things happen regularly and with minimal effort. It’s called policy making.

Your HR policy can make it a matter of course for the right people to report and solve their own problems. Or it can do the opposite. Which is why so many companies today are taking a fresh look at employee handbooks and agreements and redefining what it means to be an employee.

One of these companies is Axero. We are still a small company, not looking to spend a lot of time or money on HR stuff. However, we want to make sure that, as we grow, we communicate a sense of empowerment to every employee. We are getting too big for me to do that personally, so I’ve been looking at what other companies have done. Frankly, I didn’t expect to find a solution in an employee handbook, until I found one from an online gaming company called Valve.

From the title page, Valve’s Employee Handbook promised to be:

“A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.”

I wanted to keep reading, and I found out all kinds of interesting things, like why their desks have wheels:

“Think of those wheels as a symbolic reminder that you should always be considering where you could move yourself to be more valuable. But also think of those wheels as literal wheels, because that’s what they are, and you’ll be able to actually move your desk with them.”

The section on setting work goals and picking projects had this stunning piece of advice:

“When considering the outcome, don’t believe that anyone but you is the ‘stakeholder.’ You’re it. And Valve’s customers are who you’re serving. Do what’s right for them.”

The whole handbook struck me as a brilliantly executed piece of HR strategy. Granted, Valve’s policies are unique to what they do. If you work on a conveyor belt, you probably won’t put wheels on your workstation, so you can move it closer to the window. Yet the common theme for Axero and every company striving for employee engagement is to look for ways to free each individual employee to tailor the job to him or herself.

Of course, no company would empower employees if it believes them to be inherently disgruntled or incapable. Which is why both Scenario No. 1 above—blaming the worker—and Scenario No. 2—blaming the work—are doomed to failure.

Companies with defensive employee policies put their HR in a tough spot. If yours is one of these companies, you can try and make a case to top management that no engagement is to be found on the path you’re on. You will find many useful talking points in my new book Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?, an extension of the research I’ve done on the 22 Surefire Ways to Boost Employee Engagement.

That leaves us with Scenario No. 3. If you believe it’s possible to engage and inspire your people, you must believe in rebuilding the relationship between the company and the employees. This is not a task HR can accomplish on its own. HR is an agent of the company, both in essence and in the eyes of the employees. Generally speaking, the company and its leaders must gain credibility first, before HR policies can succeed with rank-and-file.

“Trust” is another word that gets thrown around a lot. Building trust is not that complicated. The company needs to show that it has people’s interests in mind. It needs to listen to those front-line managers, and every manager needs to make it a point to listen to his staff.

Once management learns to put itself into employees’ shoes, the barriers to engagement will become obvious. Then HR can become a powerful ally in mending fences between the company and employees. Then HR policies will become a tool for scaling up engagement.

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If you are in Human Resources, you might like my book, because it proves your point and builds your case for top management.

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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