Impact of the Recession on Employee Engagement

by Susan K. Warren


Workplace engagement is an area of research that has taken me down many winding roads, from readings and conversations with CEOs to personal observations and interviews with both management and wage/hour employees in the workplace. This article represents a brief look at my initial findings, with updates to come as the research evolves.

Why does engagement matter? Because there is a clear link between engagement and profitability to sustain company competitiveness, as well as the job satisfaction of the individual employee.

How does the recession impact engagement? Overall engagement levels have not suffered drastically, yet indicators that promote engagement have shifted, making it a possible concern in the future.

Today, unemployment is up, jobs are scarce, and layoffs have become common across industries. Forced to implement reductions in the workforce, companies are downsizing, creating an environment of changing work roles, growing complexity and uncertainty to the point of fearing permanent job loss.

When employees are uncertain about their future, what happens to employee engagement? According to a 2006 Gallup study, Feeling Good Matters in the Workplace, there are three types of employees.

  • Engaged employees (28%) work with passion and feel a profound connection to their companies. They drive innovation and move the organization forward
  • Not-engaged employees (54%) are essentially “checked out.” They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time—but not energy or passion—into their work
  • Actively disengaged employees (18%) aren’t just unhappy at work: they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.

Throughout the last decade, engaged employees ranged from 26 to 30 percent, while actively disengaged employees ranged from 15 to 20 percent. Surprisingly enough in these recessionary times, the actively disengaged category has increased by just one percent, while engaged has dropped by one percent.

Characteristics of Employee Engagement
Consider an environment that nurtures employee engagement. The following observations were made by employees in those companies that weathered the storm of the recession:

  • corporate citizens
  • confident in abilities
  • act as business partners
  • great job fit
  • passion for work
  • appreciates recognition    
  • emotionally mature
  • needs little/no direction    
  • affect positive environment
  • customer satisfaction    
  • personal initiative
  • continuous innovation
  • job involvement
  • embrace change    
  • job satisfaction
  • relationship building
  • self-worth
  • critical thinking    
  • self-development
  • creativity
  • respectful
  • trustworthy
  • sincere lifelong learner
  • self-starter.

The cornerstone of engagement is positive workplace relationships, and those relationships are built on a solid communication system. In turbulent times, communication becomes more difficult because of the rumor mill, stressed-out employees, additional job roles added to current duties, and sometimes, the loss of trust. For employee engagement to flourish, contemplate those best practices used in companies that got out of survival mode and have been successful in the down economy.

Management/Leadership Practices
Managers and supervisors must be role models and adopt the behavior they want to see in their employees. It is essential they do what they say they are going to do to inspire an environment of trust.

Continual communication is key, and it begins with employee expectations, so that workers know the rewards and consequences for their proper execution of duties. 

Managers should continue with feedback of employees’ actual performance by coaching, mentoring and providing learning experiences throughout their careers. During tough economic times, budgets do not always allow for training off-site, but by discovering the employees’ interests, it is possible to do cross-training at the work site. For example, there may be a worker in the plant that has a degree in accounting. As openings occur, why not let that person learn the internal system of the accounting department?

Changing expectations should be shared in real time. One manager, in an effort to solicit ongoing feedback, said to her employees, “We must be brutally honest about the seriousness of the situation and absolutely committed to a successful outcome.” She inspired her team to do the best possible job so the facility would not be the next targeted for closure.

It is necessary for managers to evaluate job fitness to match employees’ talents with the company’s objectives. One CEO used the interesting analogy of a bus ride. “We need the right people on the bus and in the right seats,” he said. “Conversely, we need to get the wrong people off the bus.” Intriguingly, morale improved when the people who were not pulling their weight were fired. The engaged employees no longer had to carry the weight of the disengaged worker.

Recognition appears to be thriving largely because budgets have been slashed. Instead of giving monetary awards, managers are thanking their employees for a job well done. Although a certain segment concentrates only on the cash incentive, most people just want to be recognized for their efforts.

Individual Engaged Employee Practices
Individual engagement can be disrupted in a recession because it is based on fulfilling basic human needs in the workplace. The more the needs are met, the more engaged the individual is, so changes in employment status, like job moves, can be viewed as detrimental. Yet in difficult times, engaged employees become invaluable to the company by utilizing some of the following steps.

They “toot their own horn” and showcase their transferable skills. I witnessed an employee volunteer for a project he knew was on his boss’s to-do list. “I know my job,” he said. “Now I want to show my boss that I possess other talents, and maybe he will see how indispensable I can be to the firm.” He was trying to learn his immediate manager’s job so he could be more of an asset to the organization.

Times are turbulent, but it is not the time to cause waves in the workplace. As an engaged employee, keep good rapport with coworkers. When conflicts arise, act as a mediator. Management will notice the person who takes the lead as people are brought together to solve problems, and that problem solver will most likely be retained if cuts are made in the unit.

Learn new skills, and learn as much as possible about each person’s duties. Engaged employees are noticed for their drive and determination to improve their skills and career.

Do not be seen as a roadblock, but as a person who embraces change. Become an enabler, not a resister. Demonstrate to management the willingness to help with any extra work that is needed to implement the change; this will be viewed as an asset.

The engaged employee is a premium talent that will be retained by successful companies. Christopher Rice, CEO of the BlessingWhite consulting firm, said, “Business leaders are right to be concerned about retention of top talent, and while raises may encourage some workers to stick around, our findings suggest that employees, especially high performers, will remain in jobs that challenge them, utilize their expertise and provide meaning.” iBi

Susan K. Warren is a doctoral candidate at Northern Illinois University and the retired postmaster of Peoria, Illinois. For more information, visit skwconsulting.com.

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