Dr. David Kippen joins the HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board as its newest member this week. Dr. Kippen is CEO and Chief Strategist of Evviva Brands. With a background spanning advertising and communications and a client base spanning the globe, Dr. Kippen is recognized as among the top thought leaders in brand strategy. David has held leadership roles in several top associations that support the HR and communications professions. He is currently a member of SHRM’s Performance Management Task Force and an active member of the Council of Communication Management. Full Bio »
A Covenant for The New Normal: Four Steps to Employee Engagement
by Dr. David Kippen
Employee engagement starts with offering careers that “do what they say on the tin.” That is, being who you say you are.
Re-engagement is different. Today, in the wake of the global financial crisis, HR leaders are focused on putting a reengagement plan into play. Fortunately, re-engagement doesn’t have to be costly or offer new rewards.
The key to re-engagement is simple: reframe your covenant, tell the truth, keep your word and manage your brand.
A Covenant for The New Normal: Four Steps to Employee Engagement
For many businesses, 2008-2010 were the most difficult times in living memory. Top managers at top brands faced questions of organizational survival they never expected. Hundreds of millions worldwide were suddenly unemployed, while their former colleagues alternated between guilt, despair, anxiety and exhaustion. Through it all, HR leaders faced unprecedented challenges during times of daunting, unrelenting, merciless, change.
The New Normal
While it appears the worst is over, we’ve entered a “new normal,” a transitional period of incomplete recovery punctuated by periods of strong economic uncertainty. The contours of this “new normal” are survivable, but uninspiring. Though it’s not clear how long the new normal will last, it is clear that HR leaders are shifting focus to actively re-engaging the workforce.
Because engagement and re-engagement are qualitatively different, this in turn requires a change in how leaders view engagement sources and drivers. Engagement often begins at point of hire and is trust-based—we accept that the organization will do what we expect it to do.” Engagement is often passive–it happens because people expect it to happen. In contrast, re-engagement is a decision current employees make after circumstance or poor management has eroded trust. Re-engagement is always active: it happens because leaders articulate a new covenant and visibly live by the agreement they’ve forged.
Fortunately, re-engagement is neither complicated nor daunting. It follows just a few simple steps. And the odds of re-engagement success are quite good to excellent because re-engagement leverages the organization’s core brand assets and HR competencies, and because it builds on the almost universal desire to feel good about work.
The Hiring Covenant
Re-engagement begins with understanding the root of engagement: the promises employees believe the organization has already made to them, both at the point of hire, when these promises are the most explicit, and once employees find their footing and have decided to stay.
Initially, this “hiring covenant” is far larger than the deal one negotiates with the organization. It includes what one believes the organization stands for as expressed by the master brand, the employer brand, and the organization’s mission, vision and values. So, the hiring covenant includes intangibles that sit outside HRs’ sphere of control.
Evviva Brands’ research suggests that the hiring decisions of selective talent are driven by three universal beliefs:
- Passion: my work area/specialty is a strategic focus of the company;
- Purpose: this company is the best aligned with my own goals;
- Impact: I will have the greatest opportunity for personal impact here.
Salary and benefits, company reputation, the makeup of the team, career growth opportunities, training and development are also important. While these others are often undifferentiated or highly variable, the differentiating factors are passion, purpose and impact.
The Employment Covenant
When day one rolls around the new employee understands what they’ll do, why they’ll do it, who they’ll do it with, who they’re working for, why their work matters and why the organization’s work matters in the world. But though the job description is fairly concrete, the rest of these factors can change fast. This is why, over time, three additional factors join passion, purpose and impact as engagement drivers:
- Autonomy: my freedom to operate without intrusive supervision;
- Authority: my right to make decisions necessary to get my job done;
- Accountability: an appropriate and fair assessment of my success.
Note that passion, purpose and impact are company-level drivers—that is, they reflect the individual’s covenant with the company as a whole. Autonomy, authority and accountability operate at a workgroup level and articulate the “deal” between an individual and his team and managers.
Together, these six principles comprise the employment covenant. Because the covenant they’ve struck is beneficial at both the basic level of salary and benefits and at the “higher” level of alignment between career aspiration and organizational goals, employees who feel tied to their organization by passion, purpose and impact and tied to their jobs by the right balance of accountability, authority and autonomy demonstrate high levels of engagement and performance.
When Change Happens
The past few years have tested these covenants at organizations of every size and raise the inevitable question, “so what happens when these promises are broken?” As with the rest of life, it depends on what happens next—on how the promissor recovers from the lapse.
Organizations everywhere have asked employees to do more with less, and they have. But this performance improvement has come at a cost. Senior operations managers may view the changes they’ve overseen as necessary survival measures. But workers often don’t see their work in this “big picture.” They’re more likely to see the difference between the job when they joined the organization and their current role. And because this isn’t what they signed up for, because the walls are no longer on fire—and particularly when financial performance seems sound—they’re likely to feel let down, disappointed, tired, even angry.
Crafting Your New Covenant
When the organization’s promises have been broken and the organization’s been quiet about the shift, workers at all levels often respond with an understandable recalibration of their own commitment from “whatever it takes” to “whatever I must.” It’s then time to focus on re-engagement, a journey that begins with acknowledgement that all changes are material and important even if their sources were beyond our control.
How can HR lead in turning the tide? At any firm, re-engagement has the same four basic steps:
1. Listen at Every Level.
Leaders must have dialogue with the organization on fundamental questions underpinning the brand: “who we are,” “what we stand for,” “how we work,” “what we’re proud of.” The key is twofold. Listen to understand, but also, be seen to listen. Leaders must participate with the mindset that the journey is the destination.
Leaders should focus on three areas:
- How far are teams and individuals from engagement?
- What are the key issues driving disengagement?
- Which of these are connected to brand drivers?
2. Redesign the Employer Brand Experience.
With the results in hand, HR, Operations and Brand leaders should develop an integrated approach to the employment experience. This is not about new collateral—it’s spelling out the details of a new covenant across Brand, HR and Operations jurisdictions.
- This new covenant should describe what it means to work here. It is a re-frame of the initial promise set made to workers. Focus on the work experience itself.
- Simple structure and language are essential. (It should fit on a large Post-it.)
- Some elements will require re-affirmation. Others will describe a new reality. Clarify what’s gone away and won’t be back.
3. Cascade Communications
Communications should be handled close to the functional unit. Aim for a Board-level announcement of intent, a clear roadmap outlining when and where events will happen, and strong alignment of all people managers.
- Sessions should be described as based upon the learnings we took from your feedback.
- Leaders should share that the “old covenant” is null, void and superseded.
- Managers must “own” the message and the promise. The program is not ready to launch until managers are ready to launch it.
- Manger tool-kits and talking points should be developed—and managers trained—well in advance.
- Cascading communications are effective if they cascade up to board level.
- If communications will cascade in both directions leaders must be willing to listen to feedback–and to be held accountable for keeping their word.
4. Execute the Covenant.
Just as the brand has meaning to the marketplace it must have meaning to the workforce. And it is in the day-to-day experience of the new employer brand covenant that success lies, not in the launch campaign. Leaders at every level must understand and focus on the brand as an experience the organization delivers, not simply messaging on the walls and halls. The workforce will quickly dismiss any initiatives that look good in print but are absent in their day-to-day lives at work. Before they decide to re-engage, workers must see that the organization is “walking the talk.” For HR, this may require time and effort invested to ensure that operations, particularly at the middle-management level, feel a strong sense of accountability for delivering an on-brand experience to their colleagues.
Once the revised employer brand has been launched the employer brand team should serve as “keepers of the flame.” The brand team should identify “brand ambassadors” throughout the organization at every level to ensure that brand advocates are in place throughout the company. Once trained, ambassadors serve double duty as both culture-keepers and as “canaries in the mineshaft” to give warning when the covenant is at risk.
There is no set time to measure the success of re-engagement programs but it’s useful to take a quantitative pulse at 6, 12, and 18 months and to revisit focus groups between 9 and 15 months. While it may take time for metrics to be where they should, traction should be evident among top performers almost immediately (they are typically the most engaged already) and strong evidence should be visible among most employees within six months.
The re-engagement process is often long and it’s sometimes difficult to assess when resistance will finally fall. But by re-examining who we are and what we do, we have the opportunity to re-align our workforce to today’s organizational reality. When we do this, we provide workers a clear understanding of organizational values today. Workers who are a poor fit for this “revised reality” now have greater clarity and are more likely to “opt out” and leave for more suitable opportunities. Workers who may have lost their passion are able to re-commit and by so doing, substantially increase their enjoyment of their work and their productivity. And workers who join the organization after the work has launched will not experience—or care about—the new covenant. The only promise they’ll hold the organization to is the one made upon their joining: that the company be “exactly what it says on the tin.” A promise the organization can now make—and deliver.
 Every organization experiences an early attrition peak, typically between 3 and 18 months, during which employees who don’t fit voluntarily exit. Employees who don’t report going through a process of acceptance where they let go of what they hoped to find and learn to accept the job and the company “warts and all.”
 Because they have other employment opportunities, the views of selective talent are important in understanding engagement.
 It’s important to note that most of these employee beliefs about how work will be are entirely theoretical on day one and that attrition between 3 and 18 months is generally driven by a mismatch between these beliefs and workplace realities.
 Even when management has done a good job of explaining “why” along the way it’s difficult to accept a continuing crisis response when the crisis appears to be over.
 Useful tools include:
- Attitudinal surveys. These are helpful in diagnosing where disengagement is most prevalent and how bad the problem is. However, they shouldn’t be used to diagnose issues.
- Qualitative tools such as focus groups, management feedback sessions, local leadership interviews or social media should be used to identify and rank the organization’s most important broken promises.
- Customer insights should also be reviewed to ensure that leaders have a clear line of sight to the effect of disengagement on brand promises. This can often unlock additional urgency—and funding—to support re-engagement efforts.
 Because the brand is what the marketplace expects from the organization, broken promises affecting brand drivers must be addressed.