Closing the Engagement Gap

Screen Shot 2014-06-22 at 8.19.53 PMEmployees can be a very big recruiting resource

A recent report by PR firm Weber Shandwick — Employees Rising: Seizing the Opportunity in Employee Activism — has a lot to say about the potential for tapping employees as a recruitment resource.

The report is based on a global survey done by the firm. The survey found that engaged employees can become activists for their employers. They can be an employer’s best advocates, promoting the company as a great place to work. Many employees actively defend the reputations of their employers. More than half of all employees surveyed reported defending their employer to family or friends or in a public form like a website or a blog.

But they can also be its worst opponents. Just read the reviews on Glassdoor for proof of both.

None of this should be a surprise, but what’s most interesting in the report is that employee advocacy is a largely untapped resource.

For starters, the majority of employees report that they feel treated like mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed B.S.) by their company’s leadership. Fewer than 30 percent report that they are being communicated with, listened to, and kept in the loop. Only about 17 percent highly rate communications from management. As a result, only about 40 percent can explain to others what their employers do or what the company’s goals are. It’s tough to be an advocate for your employer if you’re clueless about what it does.


Whether employers like it or not, employees are talking about them online. The social media genie has long been out of the bottle. Almost 90 percent of employees use at least one social media site for personal communication and will use it to “air their likes and dislikes of their jobs, bosses, and organizations.”

The survey finds that 50 percent of employees often post messages, pictures, or videos in social media about their employers. More employees (39 percent) have shared positive comments than have shared negative comments (16 percent). But just 21 percent are committed to take only positive actions on behalf of their employers. So four out of five employees are not activists supporting their employers.

Much of the gap has to do with employees not feeling engaged with their employers. Less than a third of all employees report being highly engaged. The upheavals of recent years involving layoffs and financial crises have left many employees feeling utterly jaded, with many feeling that they are simply not valued.

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Employee activists exist across a spectrum of activism ranging from ProActivism to Detractors. ProActivists are highly social and conduct the most positive actions. Detractors all  take negative actions against their employer. There are some defining characteristics of each. ProActivists are largely millennials, have a college degree, and work in managerial type jobs. They have the highest employer engagement level. Detractors, on the other hand are most likely women, lack a college degree, work in  physical/manual jobs, and highly have long tenures.

Growing ProActivists

So how to get more employees to become activists on behalf of their employers? Employees report that leadership is the most important factor. Leaders who are trustworthy, value their ideas and opinions, and make the company a good place to work are most likely to find employees supporting them. That includes communications — more frequent and truthful, whether conveying good or bad news.

Those who aren’t already Pro Activists are more likely to become one and be more inclined to use social media to share news and information about their work or employer if they were given easy-to-understand guidelines and access to social media at work and helpful tools. For example, Zappos encourages employees to include company information and opinions on social media posts. The company also has a Twitter aggregate of all employee Twitter feeds which serves as a word-of-mouth platform for recruitment.

But dealing with detractors is no simple matter. It isn’t easy to fix negative leadership trust perceptions. Consequently it’s best to have some online monitoring tools in place to flag behavior that is in violation of the company’s social policies.

But better to try and get them to be positive, or at least not be overly critical. An employer’s options to deal with negative comments are limited. The U.S. National Labor Relations Act affords employees the right to discuss their wages and other terms and conditions of employment, both among themselves and with non-employees. Such activity is protected whether the employees’ statements were communicated via the Internet or social media, and may include complaints and criticisms about a supervisor’s attitude and performance, use of a company name and logo to communicate with fellow employees or the public, and communications with reporters about wages and other terms of employment.

Welcome to the brave new world of employee activism.

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.


8 Comments on “Closing the Engagement Gap

  1. Instead of controlling the message, employers should fix the problem. The ‘entitled’ millennial generation grew up with the internet and the free flow of information. As a generation, I find their BS detectors much more sensitive than any other generation’s. As a result, I don’t think turning existing employees into ambassadors for the company necessarily will matter that much, especially if it comes through some kind of official channel. The trust afforded to that message will be next to nothing.

    Employees do not need to be more engaged. The problem is they are too engaged. There’s 168 hours in a week, of which 56 is hopefully being used for sleep. That equals 112 waking hours, of which employees will work a minimum of 8 directly. Assume an hour break, an hour for getting ready for, and commuting to and from work, and you’re at ten hours, which means 50 a week minimum, which is about 45% of their waking hours. Then factor in the ever present and advancing 60 hour work week, so in reality you’re looking at way more than half their lives spent working for their employer on a week to week, month to month basis. And the employers always want more, and always want to pay less, and they tend to get what they want.

    Now factor in an economic recession, and one of the lowest amounts of off time in the civilized world, plus factoring in that most vacations are ‘working vacations,’ which means not vacations at all, the question occurs: Just how much more engaged do employers need these people to be? Do employers deserve 65% of their lives? 75%? Perhaps 100%, only allowing them to sleep?

    Here is how you increase employee satisfaction and engagement. One, pay them a good wage for the work done, one they can live on. Two, give them vacation time at least on par with the rest of the developed world, and let them take it without having to check email every ten minutes. Three, manage them well and continuously. People are not rotisserie ovens, you can’t set and forget them. You need to monitor them, develop them, when their productivity increases, as does the revenue they generate for you, then their salaries should increase commensurately, not a paltry 1% or 2% if they’re ‘lucky.’. And four, stop working them to burnout and then replacing them with a drawn out, six month hiring process while the former employee sits on unemployment wondering what the hell happened. Doing all this might require taking a .025% cut in the profit margin though, so it won’t happen.

    I always tend to look at things from a manufacturing perspective. And in this case employers are manufacturers of employment opportunities. They’re product sucks ass overall in the opinions of most people, and rather than improve their product, they’re stuck in a loop wondering how in the world their consumers – their current and potential employees – can’t see the absolute unadulterated genius of their product offering. Other than Apple, pretty much every manufacturer that’s taken this approach has eventually gone out of business. I predict the same for modern corporations. They are dinosaurs thrashing in the tar pits of the reality that they are losing control and will never get it back. The ones who evolve will survive. My guess is most won’t, and will ride their 19th century factory worker management techniques straight into their graves.

    1. Completely agree with you Medieval Recruiter.

      There was another interesting article on ere a couple of weeks (months?) back on how should companies try to tackle the brain drain to startups. If they are only going to fix the marketing and not the product itself (which often happens), don’t think this will change.

      Finally – I also feel that part of the problem is the nature of a large corporate itself. It is extremely difficult for 15 (100?) people sitting in an ivory tower (corporate HQ) to have a meaningful discussion about the direction of the company with an employee sitting 1000 miles away and 10 degrees below in the organisational hierarchy. Its through advantages like these that startups win.

      1. I don’t think the large corporate issue is really crux of it, though it can aggravate a situation. The base or root problem I see is employees are seen as a cost, disposable, and easily replaceable, when they aren’t any of those things. Employment is a mutual exchange, and at least on an ex ante basis, all mutual exchanges are profitable. Employees add revenue to companies, and vacancies cost companies revenue. Right now most accounting systems don’t approach employment this way; they are overhead, and when one leaves overhead goes down and as long as the company doesn’t implode it actually looks like savings. So of course, why not fire everyone and take overhead down to nothing?! It’s a ridiculous was of looking at employees, but it is the pervasive one in society today. And employers refuse to learn, from their own experience and complaints no less, that people aren’t so easily replaced.

        So it’s a stalemate; companies large and small think they are doing their employees a ‘favor’ by employing them, they think their employees ‘owe’ them something above and beyond the work product, for which the company is voluntarily paying them, which is simply moronic. They refuse to provide the job security and real salaries of years past, but still insist on the loyalty of a 30 year company veterans. They see people as disposable while demanding to be seen themselves as indispensable, despite being near clones of each other, and not offering much at all to distinguish themselves from one another, and not much in return for the presumed glory of sitting in one of their cubicles for 12 hours a day.

        I like the manufacturing analogy: as an employer you manufacture employment opportunities. The vast majority of your current and potential customers are telling you your product is sub par to absolutely horrific, and they really don’t want to buy it. But, since the economy sucks and rent and taxes need to be paid and kids have to eat, they’ll buy because they have to. And despite all the complaints almost no employers are really doing anything to change this, because getting what amounts to a defacto slave labor force is generally appealing to them because they don’t understand that the less ‘voluntary’ work becomes, that the more the nature of a person’s work goes from, “I want to be here,” to, ” I have to be here,” to, “If I’m not here me and my family might starve,” the less productive people get. Because they know they’re being screwed, whether deliberately or by circumstance, and they will do the minimum necessary because that’s all they’re getting in return: the minimum necessary.

        1. That’s true – it’s not just the organization size but also the attitude towards the employees that needs to change.

          I guess what I was trying to bring out was that proximity to the final authority in a company (i.e. the board) also allows for a better employment ‘package’. The CEO gets his way because he is a phone call away to convince someone that its better to take a 0.001 dent in margins for a higher salary, and in turn the company will benefit from his/her performance. The average employee has no one to call – their managers & HR are not typically empowered to increase salaries. Contrast that to a startup where an Engineer having a bad time can usually speak to the CEO directly and get a salary increase (practically) the same day.

          Maybe I’m biased cause I left the corporate world for the startup space myself 🙂 But I feel the fundamental design (i.e. size & hierarchy) of corporates is as much a hindrance as their attitude.

          1. It could definitely be a hindrance, I just don’t think it’s the root cause. The root cause is the attitude toward employees, the structure just exacerbates that. If you have a start-up where key people have the same bad attitude, you get the same bad results.

          2. As long as an Employer values his most important resource – the Employee, the structure won’t matter.

  2. Glad you’re writing more, Raghav. You’ve been sorely missed…
    Q: How to increase the number of your employee ProActivists?
    A: Don’t **** over your employees.
    It seems self-evident that those people you mentioned as being the likeliest to be ProActivists are those least likely to have been ****ed over in the course of their employment, and vice-versa.
    @ Medieval Recruiter: Well-said. For reasons such as you’ve mentioned, I advocate that employees “unlease their inner CEOs”: Grab as much money, benefits, power, training, connections, etc, as you possibly can while you’re at your current employer and then “get the hell outta Dodge” before it comes tumbling down around you. Loyalty = cash-flow, and unless you have a solid employment contract, you are expendable, so it’s best to go on YOUR terms, while the going is good…
    Few (if any) Cheers,

    1. Exactly. You can’t received loyalty without giving as much yourself, and there isn’t a single company on this planet I’d say is truly ‘loyal’ to their employees. With fewer and fewer exceptions, companies will not take a stagnant, or worse, lower profit margin and/or total revenue in order to be loyal to their employees by say, maintaining benefits despite a higher cost, or maintaining, much less increasing, salaries and/or total comp despite a real or perceived labor surplus, or increasing work hours flexibility, etc. The corporate model is to constantly cut costs and try and get more and more for less and less, and employees, and basically everything employees want, are viewed as a cost.

      I’d also go further and say that employers with the biggest brand gaps, that is the biggest difference between what they sell as the experience of working for them as opposed to the reality of working for them, will experience the biggest blow back from trying to create ambassadors.

      The extraordinarily simple bottom line is, if you treat people well and pay them well, generally they think well of you, and have no problem telling others that. To the end of creating ambassadors, employers need to skip the lip service and move toward achieving the reality first. Otherwise they have nothing up their sleeves and in this day and age, it’s not hard to find that out.

      I recall one experience where varying schedules were proposed as a way of accommodating employees and making the work life balance better for them. Some people had kids to drop off or pick up at school, longer commutes, etc. The managers involved all agreed there would be no impact on business at the time. Other than the time spent determining schedules and entering them into the payroll system, there was nothing needed in terms of cost or investment. The owner of the company flipped out and outright refused to do it, for no reason other than the outright stated fact that he didn’t want to “give” anything away.

      One manager, who had worked for the company for decades and who was in good stead with the owner, went and did it anyway. A year or so later his department’s performance had improved, morale had improved, people were actually happy, which was an anomaly at this company. The owner flat out said he screwed up when presented with this information. However, a month or so later when again presented with the opportunity to do it for the whole company, he flipped out and started screaming about “giving things away” again.

      This is corporate reality in the US. Until recruiting and HR leaders face that, most engagement talk is pie in the sky nonsense.

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