From the sales floor to the board room, a growing number of businesses are focusing on employee engagement. After studying more than 3,000 examples of places where people say they’re engaged and reviewing 350 research studies on the issue, I summarize all the various definitions of engagement this way: Employee engagement is the sustained connection a person has to the work they do within them and the workplace around them.
Engaging employees often comes as an afterthought to well-meaning managers and business owners. However, the science shows a particular necessity for focusing on it: Gallup’s 2013 “State of the American Workplace” survey showed almost 80% of all employees feeling disengaged from work in some way. That means that 4/5ths of all employees don’t have a sustained connection to their work. That is a massive problem.
Disengaged by Engagement
Toward that end, a lot of companies have instituted employee engagement programs designed to address the problem of worker disengagement. However, they generally suck, or as Inc. magazine says, “Most so-called employee engagement programs are misbegotten, unwieldy, ineffective rolling caravans of impractical or never-going-to-be-implemented PowerPoint presentations.”
Here are some ways employers fail at employee engagement
51 Ways Employers Fail to Engage Employees
- Managers see and treat employee engagement like a special activity that only fits in a certain place at a certain time.
- Managers ask one particular employee over and over to participate in activities with managers.
- Managers talk about employee engagement without actually talking to employees.
- Managers treat employees favorably for becoming engaged in ways that managers approve of, while employees who take initiative to become engaged on their own are reprimanded for not following expectations.
- Managers consistently ask employers to speak about being an employee in manager meetings or at special planning sessions without doing anything about it.
- Managers only engage employees for certain issues at work instead of addressing everything employees are concerned about.
- Managers will implement employee engagement programs to employees, without letting employees implement programs for themselves.
- Managers hold a celebration dinner for managers at the company and invite five employees to join 500 managers.
- Employees are only asked about topics that affect them directly, rather than the entire company or industry as a whole.
- Employees are not taught about issues, actions, or outcomes that might inform their perspectives regarding becoming engaged.
- Managers tell employees they have a voice and assign them the specific ways they are expected to express it.
- Employees concerns are listened to specific issues seen as worker-specific challenges like company uniforms, picnic themes, workplace bullying, and technology.
- Managers install specific employees in traditionally managerial positions without the authority, ability, or background knowledge managers receive in those same positions.
- Managers constantly tell employees about their experiences when they were workers, instead of listening to actual current workers’ experiences.
- A single employees’ busiest time of year revolve around the industry calendar—outside regular company activities—because they’re attending conferences, meetings, summits, and other industry activities that require managers to invite them.
- Managers don’t tell employees directly the purpose of their involvement in workplace committees or industry conferences, except to say that they are The Employee Voice.
- Workers are told that sharing their voice is as good as it cans get.
- Employers control who hears, sees, or communicates employee concurs.
- When employees walk into a meeting, every manager knows there are employees attending without knowing their names, where they’re from, or what jobs they do.
- During a meeting managers expect one employee or a small group of employees to represent all employee and to be fully engaged.
- Employees and managers see that employees are being tokenized by management without doing anything about it, thereby undermining employees’ engagement further.
- Employees are treated as if or told it is a favor for them to participate in decision-making.
- In meetings, employees are given little or no opportunity to formulate their own opinions before speaking.
- Employees are not taught about the economic necessity of employee engagement.
- Employers invite employees to share their knowledge, ideas, opinions, and more, and then ignore what they say.
- One employee is invited to talk at an industry conference, at a board meeting, or in an article written for the company website.
- Employees who attend an industry conferences are singled out for their attendance.
- Employees only invite workers who are not likely to assert themselves, make demands, or complain, to manager meetings or other activities.
- One worker is treated as unique, infallible, or is otherwise put on a pedestal by managers in the name of employee engagement.
- Managers take employees away from regular jobs for employee engagement activities without giving workers any recognition in the form of time served during the activity.
- Employers only choose articulate, charming employees to inform management activities.
- Workers are given representative roles that are not equal to manager roles in employee engagement activities.
- Employer/employee power imbalances are regularly observed and not addressed in workplaces, while employee engagement banners and programs hang all over.
- Employers are not accountable in any way to employees in employee engagement activities.
- Employers refuse to acknowledge the validity of employees they disagree with.
- Employees are punished when employer engagement activities don’t meet manager expectations.
- Companies use employee engagement activities to address some issues, and ignore it regarding others.
- Employers take pictures and videos of employees in the name of employee engagement without listening to what those same workers have to say.
- Employers seek out a small percentage of workers for an employee engagement program and claim to engage all their employees equally.
- Employees are not given the right to raise issues or share their unfettered opinions with management.
- Employee surveys are used to back up management problem-solving without actively engaging employees in problem-solving.
- Nobody explains to employees how they they were selected for an employee engagement activity.
- Employers allow employees to talk on their company’s Facebook page or twitter account but not to participate in company decision-making or board meetings.
- Managers interpret and reinterpret things employees say into language, acronyms, purposes, and outcomes that managers use without acknowledging the validity of exactly what was said.
- Employees become burned out from participating in too many employee engagement activities.
- Employees are not seen or treated as partners in the workplace by managers.
- Employees think its obvious they have a lack of authority or power or that their authority is undermined by managers.
- Managers don’t know, state, or otherwise support the purpose of engaging employees and the relevance to organizational success.
- Employees are limited to becoming engaged on the local building level, but not in the district, regional, national, or international corporate activities.
- Employees don’t understand which whether they are supposed to represent themselves or all of their peers.
- Employees are asked to become engaged one time and that activity is never repeated.
Why Employers Fail at Employee Engagement
Many of these employee engagement programs lead to a reality called tokenism. While many people associate tokenism solely with gender or racial representation, the term actually applies to any situation where one person has authority over another. In the case of employee tokenism, employers (including supervisors, managers, owners, shareholders, and others) include a small number of workers in managerial, oversight, or similar type activities in order to give the appearance of employee engagement within a workplace.
With the increased interest in employee engagement today, tokenism is bound to happen throughout workplaces. Tokenism happens whenever employees are in formal and informal roles only for employers to say they are engaged, instead of purpose, power, and possibilities to create change at work. Without that substance, employee engagement is little more than loud whisper into a vacuum.
When managers appoint employees to represent, share, or promote employee engagement, they are making a symbolic gesture towards engaging employees. This step is generally meant to increase or demonstrate employee engagement in ways managers think they need to be engaged through. It can also be meant to appease employee advocates and stop people from complaining.
When employees specifically seek to represent, share, or promote employee engagement, they are generally seeking a portion of control over their workplace experience. In many companies, agencies, and organizations, this can look like joining a committee, starting a special activity, or holding an event related to work.
Unfortunately, these approaches to employee engagement actually reinforce employee disengagement. They do this by reinforcing employers’ power over their employees and highlighting the inability of employees to actually change anything of substance within their workplace without their employers’ permission.
Tokenism happens in organizational policy and through activities in the workplace every day. It is so deep in business that many managers never know they’re tokenizing employees, and employees don’t know when they’re being tokenized. Employees often internalize tokenism, which takes away their ability to see it, and managers are very invested in it, which takes away their ability to stop it. It is important to teach employees and managers about tokenism in the workplace and how it can affect employee engagement.