Employee Engagement and Commitment Is More Important Now Than Ever

As we experience the highest unemployment rates we’ve seen in nearly 30 years, most employers (and, truth be told, most employees) believe workers today should consider themselves lucky to have a job, and therefore employers don’t really have to worry about employee engagement and commitment. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For the past 18 months, employers have been downsizing and rightsizing their payrolls, which means they now rely on much smaller employee populations to deliver their goods and services. Those employees who are “lucky” enough to still have a job, however, don’t have it easy. Not only are they challenged with taking on the additional work left by the departure of their former colleagues in an incredibly tough business environment, but these employees are doing so when many of them have not received annual merit increases and/or bonuses. According to a recent Watson Wyatt report, companies initially projected 3.5 percent merit increases for 2009, but in fact they are only going to be about 2 percent. To make matters worse, Watson Wyatt found funding for annual incentive awards (bonus pools) dropped notably from 99 percent in 2007 to an anticipated 75 percent this year.*

Now is precisely the time when employers should be focusing on employee engagement, commitment, and loyalty. Generally speaking, those employees remaining on an organization’s payroll are the best performers (or they would’ve been gone in earlier layoffs). For this reason alone, employers should use this time to develop and implement programs intended to enhance employee morale and engagement; there is simply no better expenditure than investing in your brightest and best employees. And what’s nice is these initiatives are usually not expensive to implement, although they pay huge dividends. In my experience, there are three simple, and relatively inexpensive, things an employer can do to improve employee engagement and commitment: Food, Time-off, and Communication. It’s simply amazing what periodic free breakfast or lunch will do to bring a smile to an employee’s face. Couple two or three strategically-calendared afternoons off per year for staff with constant internal communication, and employees can be made to feel really good about their employer.

There’s yet another reason why employers should focus on employee engagement and commitment. When this economy turns, as it undoubtedly will, employers who did not build loyalty with their people will find themselves facing extremely high and costly turnover. I’ve heard countless stories from disgruntled employees who admit remaining with their employers during these tough times only because they don’t have options. But they also make it very clear they’ll jump camp as soon as the job market rebounds -“ exactly at the time when many of these companies will need experienced, engaged and committed employees to meet the demands for their products and services in a strong and growing economy. In a recent study, Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder, found “fifty-five percent of workers plan to make a career change, seek out new employers or go back to school once the economic recovery is underway.”**

These numbers make clear Human Resources departments everywhere should be engaged in conversations with their senior management about the importance of investing in their people now. The time and money spent today on employee engagement and commitment strategies will prove to be extremely beneficial in the not-too-distant future.

*Citation 1: http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS185102+21-Jul-2009+PRN20090721

**Citation 2: http://www.accountingweb.com/topic/education-careers/preview-post-recession-job-market

Johnny C. Taylor Jr. is a keynote speaker on HR issues and the author of The Trouble with HR: An Insider’s Guide to Finding and Keeping the Best People (AMACOM 2009). He was the first African-American chairman of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and served as CEO of Rushmore Drive, a IAC/InterActive Corp Internet business. Contact Taylor at [email protected].