The tough work of reengagement

Recently my husband was telling me about a situation with an employee and he said ‘I think it’s impossible to reengage someone who has become totally disengaged.’ My first reaction was excitement – my non-HR husband is using terms like ‘employee engagement’! I am an HR influencer! Beyond that, though, I started to wonder. Nothing is more disheartening to morale than to have a previously engaged employee check out. A truly engaged employee, the kind who routinely goes above and beyond and is a culture leader among her peers, does not disengage easily. Once she does, it’s hard to get her back. How we react will determine whether or not we can get that employee back.

When that star employee first checks out, we often overlook his behavior. Many an employee coasts for a long time on an old reputation. (This can work in the reverse, and when a previously troublesome employee turns it around, it can take a while for management to clue in and start to value that employee’s contribution.) But we often give the newly disengaged employee a pass on poor behavior. We remember his past successes and ignore current failings. This is not fair to the employee or to his coworkers. People will see someone getting away with doing less and less, and it will effect overall morale. Unfortunately, by the time management wakes up to the employee’s dissatisfaction and dissatisfactory performance, it’s often too late. The employee has felt her concerns were ignored, and management has suddenly woken up to the subpar performance. The employee has gone from being a star to having a corrective action plan, and no one is quite clear on how that happened.

We can avoid this by getting involved and noticing behavior that is actually happening, not making assumptions based on past performance. If a top employee is suddenly doing the bare minimum, we need to ask why. And then we need to really listen to the answer. This can be tough – sometimes the employee’s complaints seem totally unmerited, and we want to rush to defend the company’s actions. Other times, something has gone wrong and we want to blithely promise to fix the issue without thinking through what that might actually look like. Either way, we need to take our time. First, honor the employee with the dignity of being heard. Be that safe space that allows an employee to own their feelings of frustration without trying to solve the problem. Once you are sure that you have heard the employee, only then can you work together on a plan.

If we truly want to reengage that employee, we can’t go for the quick fix. When a previously engaged employee checks out, they’ve often experienced a sense of betrayal by the company, whether real or imagined. Building trust takes time, but the effort is worth it, because when that employee does reengage, she is likely to be one of the strongest brand ambassadors your company can have.

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Beyond D&I, how inclusive is your culture?

Years ago I worked in a call center. For those of you who have experienced this, you know that the work can be both stressful and tedious. In an effort to make the environment more fun, we started creating office theme weeks. The first one was beach week. It was winter, and we brought in a kiddie pool that we filled with sand. On breaks, employees could lounge in beach chairs by the ‘beach’, drinking frozen mocktails with little paper umbrellas in them. I can’t remember all of our themes, but that one stands out.

Some employees loved the themes, suggested new ideas, wore crazy clothes to work during ‘school spirit’ week and otherwise joined in the fun. Others ignored the craziness and stayed at their stations processing calls. Both approaches were fine. Enough people seemed to enjoy the fun that it was worth continuing, and no one bothered the folks who didn’t want to participate.

Years later, I worked for an organization that took Halloween very seriously. I didn’t come to work dressed up, but they were prepared for me. Somewhere on the internet you could probably dig up a picture of me wearing a purple wig. I really didn’t mind, because, while I’m not into dressing up for Halloween, I am an extrovert and I like being part of a team.

But what if I didn’t? Suppose I hated wearing purple wigs in front of a camera. What if I wanted to be left alone at my desk to ignore the whole goings on? Even more, what if I had a religious objection to Halloween? At the call center, we had several staff members who did not celebrate holidays, and we tried to consult with them to be sure our themes were always inclusive.

A couple of years ago, when I was last interviewing for a new position, I interviewed at an organization where everyone wore a suit. Mostly black. And I left the interview wondering how happy I would be if I had to go out and buy a new wardrobe of black suits. (I didn’t get called back – was it because my interview suit was blue? I’ll never know.) There was a job I didn’t even bother applying for because the website showed that everyone wore jeans and a company t-shirt. I’m relaxed, but I know that a company t-shirt would feel too stifling to my own sense of style. I wouldn’t be a good culture fit for that organization.

Culture is so much more than the values on your company website. And diversity is more than making sure that different genders and ethnicities are represented in your organization. If your company culture values dressing up in costumes, what happens to the person who doesn’t want to join the fun? In a sea of black suits, is the person in the blue suit valued? Do we really want to lose people who could bring great value to our organization because they don’t like purple wigs or black suits?

As HR, it is our responsibility to guide our organization in ways that create positive culture, including beach weeks when appropriate. But let’s remember that not everyone needs to opt in. Let’s make sure we are creating inclusive spaces. I was recently challenged by Steve Browne to do more blogging – he might have used the words ‘peer pressure’. Peer pressure can be a positive force for good. But if we want everyone to be able to be their authentic selves, it has to be ok that not everyone participates in the extras. Unless your organization makes and sells beach umbrellas, remember that some folks prefer the mountains, and that’s ok.