23 Mar 2012
After years of being dismissed as just a fashionable way of talking about job satisfaction, employee engagement has finally arrived. A tipping point has been reached: there is now enough serious research out there to convince managers that the engagement concept describes a condition that is worth striving for – because it creates business value.
So what does ‘employee engagement’ mean? The theory is that people are fully engaged when they are enthusiastically and pro-actively involved in their work, acting as though their interests and those of the company are one. Clearly, this is much more than passive ‘job satisfaction’: engaged employees go beyond their job descriptions, helping colleagues with their work and finding solutions to customers’ problems – just because they want to.
Researchers now classify and measure degrees of engagement, describing types of behaviour that range from cynicism to full commitment. But what evidence is there that these types of behaviour translate into success or failure for the business?
To take just one example from the research literature, Gallup’s 2009 meta-survey of studies on the relationship between employee engagement and performance in 152 organisations found a “substantial and highly generalisable” link between levels of employee engagement and 10 critical business outcomes, including customer loyalty; profitability; productivity; employee turnover; safety and quality.
Gallup found that in terms of overall performance on these outcomes, businesses scoring in the upper half on employee engagement would double their odds of success in comparison with the lower half. This result was also reflected in earnings per share performance: companies in the top 10 percent in terms of engagement were found to have outperformed those with lower engagement scores in their industry by a factor of almost four. Correlation does not, of course, prove causation, but the hypothesis that engagement leads to better performance is not only intuitively plausible but is also one that anyone who works for a living can verify for himself or herself.
The role of the brand
We know what it is, what it does and how we can measure it. But how do we get it in the first place? Reciprocity is the key. Employees will only be prepared to give more if they perceive that there is something in it for them in terms of recognition, reward, working conditions and career prospects. In order to make that leap of faith, they need first to trust – to believe in the promise of reciprocity. In other words, it is about communication, culture and values.
That is where the corporate brand has a vital role to play. The tone and content of communication from managers, the everyday experience of the corporate culture and the values that we deduce from the behaviour of the people around us will either strengthen or erode our belief in the promises that have been made to us as recruits. And it is one of the roles of the corporate brand – when properly conceived and managed – to align communication, culture and values with employment promises.
The corporate brand can help to shape internal attitudes and behaviour, as well as external perceptions. It sets internal expectations and provides a guide to action in exactly the same way that the corporate strategy focuses skills and resources. The notion that there should be a separate ‘employer brand’ is misguided: in the internet age it makes no sense to create versions of the brand, because all stakeholder audiences are exposed to the same media and sources of information.
The corporate brand works for employees as well as customers. It can provide a framework for the engagement-friendly culture businesses now want to build; it can help to focus minds on internal communication objectives; and it can create inspiring communication media that will grab the attention of recruits and employees.
But there’s a clear and present danger that the emerging discipline of employee engagement communication will default to the human resources function because it has to do with employee perceptions. For all their undoubted strengths and the importance of their role in building employee engagement, HR professionals do not usually have the skills or the mandate to develop effective corporate brands. The way forward is for corporate and internal communicators to work with HR functions, learning from each other and pooling their expertise.
There’s no formula for building a corporate brand, but it is safe to say that all successful brands have features in common. Corporate brands must work for multiple stakeholders, but in terms of their role as drivers of employee engagement, they should:
– Set inspiring goals for the entire business. Employee engagement practitioners agree that people will give more to the business if they can see their work in the context of an inspiring and worthwhile overall goal.
– Include employees’ perceptions. Branding exercises should involve employees and their view of the world. Do not allow the typical C-suite preoccupation with customer and investor messaging to drive the thinking to the exclusion of the employee perspective.
– Credibly reflect the working world. If your corporate brand talks about an internal culture and values that employees do not see reflected in their daily lives, the resulting dissonance will undermine trust. Authenticity is key.
– Embody a consistent message to employees. Consistency is the essence of branding, which is why the advertising slogan ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’ has been absorbed into British national culture.
– Link working lives with business value-drivers. Once employees have bought in to your vision, they need to understand where they should focus their efforts in order to create value for the business.
– Differentiate the business from an employment perspective. The brand needs to provide reasons for joining your business rather than one of its competitors.
– Look like a business we all want to work for. It’s hard to feel proud that you work for a business that looks like it belongs in the last century. Strong brand identities are not superficial; they can help sell careers as well as cars.
The evidence from large-scale research studies can no longer be ignored: employee engagement is attracting more attention because the returns are potentially enormous. And that’s why an ‘employee engagement’ dial now features on the performance management dashboards of most industry-leading organisations.
Corporate branding has a role to play because it helps clarify the business’s offer to employees and helps create the kind of culture that will foster attraction and retention. It will take greater collaboration between HR and branding professionals to unleash its full potential.