What’s the point of hiring great employees if you can’t keep them? If you want your best people to commit to your company, you must commit to them first. And according to a study on the quantifiable benefits of employee engagement, your efforts will pay off. Employees who are engaged don’t just stick around longer — they also do better work, improve customer satisfaction, and boost profits.
Businesses need engaged employees to survive, yet many fail to facilitate a culture that drives engagement.
Not all the blame falls on employers, though. Just as employees cannot sustain a culture without support from leadership, leaders cannot define a cultural ideal and expect employees to get in line. The two sides must work together to foster a positive environment that increases engagement.
Engagement Isn’t Just an Entry-Level Issue
Problems with engagement affect everyone: One 2017 report confirmed that engagement levels typically decrease after an employee’s first year with the company. That means your experienced, valuable team members care less about their work, and that’s bad for everyone.
When companies can’t even keep their best workers happy, no one feels compelled to stay. Increased turnover kills morale and productivity, creating a self-sustaining cycle where unhappy employees do bad work and leave — only to be replaced by employees who suffer in the same stagnant culture. Studies show that when an employee leaves your company, it will cost you about one-third of that worker’s salary to replace them. So the faster you address the issue, the better.
Disengagement doesn’t happen by accident, either. Employees stop caring because they don’t see why they should. Businesses can solve the employee engagement crisis by making conscious, continuous commitments to their workers.
[Related: Employee Engagement Checklist and Calendar]
Renewing the Vows
The solution, as usual, starts with communication. I once worked for a company with an incredible culture. I assumed my team felt the same, though sometimes it’s tough to see the forest for the trees. In one instance, I continually loaded an assistant’s plate with work I assumed she wanted. I only realized my mistake when she handed in her resignation. Culture, no matter how positive, requires conscious effort to maintain.
Toxic environments, on the other hand, need no help. When companies leave culture to chance, employees and managers quickly become soldiers on opposite sides of an unwinnable war. Both sides fight, but only employers have the authority to repair the damage.
Employees often disengage because they lack control over what they do and why they do it. Companies can help re-engage them, but to do so, leaders must be willing to make dramatic changes. Recommit to employees and enjoy the perks of higher engagement rates by following this process:
1. Rediscover the Spark
New hires typically enjoy their first day on the job, but when they experience frustration and lack of support, that enthusiasm fades into apathy. Treat this cultural shift as an opportunity to “rehire” all your great employees. Discover why they wanted to work for you in the first place, what went wrong along the way and how to fix it.
This doesn’t need to be a formal process — think of it like a casual renewal of vows. One of my employees recently spent weeks struggling to please an impossible client. When we finally addressed the issue, I realized she was doing all that work for a client who didn’t truly need any of it. We resolved the issue on a single phone call, and our employee felt good about her role at the company and the support she had in management.
2. Acknowledge the Disconnect
You hired smart people for good reasons. They already know something’s wrong, so don’t avoid the conversation. Sit down with teams to talk about what changed, why it matters and what to do about it. Keep conversations individual when possible. Every person is unique, which means a general cultural malaise could manifest in different ways for different people.
Dig into specific causes of discontent: Do some employees hate certain policies? Do people feel like they’ve been shuffled into roles they don’t enjoy? When employees air their grievances, you must own the mistakes and work out plans to improve.
3. Listen More Than You Talk
This is not the time to explain why your company culture is better than the individual thinks. Management cannot understand the perspective of the employees without listening in a judgment-free setting.
Reconnecting with disgruntled workers takes time, especially when employees have raised the same concerns in the past without satisfaction. Use a combination of surveys, open meetings and one-on-one talks to take the pulse of the organization. Don’t commit to changes prematurely, but do make an earnest effort to address problems quickly.
4. Make This Time Different
Employees usually don’t disengage quietly. Experienced team members have probably raised the same concerns to management multiple times. When their frustrations go unheard, employees tend to believe their opinions don’t hold.
For this reset to work, you can’t let long-standing (or even first-time) complaints slip through the cracks. Solve the easy problems as quickly as possible to demonstrate sincerity. When employees see that management intends to make real changes, they become more willing to help change the culture.
Our leadership team has committed to developing tangible improvements on short timelines. Each of us has “rocks” — important short-term goals that we agree to hit within ambitious time frames. If we fail to hit a rock, we discuss what went wrong and how we plan to improve. Most of the time, though, we keep our promises because employees need to know that we mean what we say.
Culture shifts don’t happen overnight. This process may be simple, but you must be patient and committed to creating lasting change.
Scott Schulte is vice president and senior benefits consultant at employee benefits company Sonus Benefits. With a deep and varied background in the insurance and employee benefits industries, Schulte promises comprehensive, customized solutions for his clients and has for close to 20 years. If you’d like to learn more about employee culture and its relationship to retention, subscribe to their blog. A St. Louis native, Schulte is a board member of the Gateway Chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.