12 Sep 2017

A reality check for employee engagement

The most effective approach is one that pays just as much attention to direction as it does to inspiration.

James Brock, Strategy

So far, the answers have largely come from human resources, and from brand. The strategic focus for HR is based on the perception that companies need to compete successfully in the ‘war for talent’, which sees employers waged in a constant battle to attract the best candidates, in the face of fierce competition from a broad set of peers. As a result, HR communications strategy focuses heavily on ‘upselling’ the company, looking for ways to differentiate the business and placing a heavy emphasis on softer aspects such as culture and values.

Enter the branding consultancies. Creating an aspirational, differentiated brand positioning is their bread and butter, so unsurprisingly the principal vehicle that has been developed to support effective employee engagement has been the ‘Employer Brand’, or the ‘Employee Value Proposition’ (terms which are often used interchangeably.)

This is all fine – there’s plenty of research to show that recruits use perceptions of value and culture to make important decisions about prospective employers – but it’s only fine up to a point. There’s a key piece of the jigsaw that is often under-represented – strategy.

The lack of emphasis on strategy in engagement communications is easy to understand. Communicating it in an engaging way is a challenge, as is making it relevant to the value judgements of employees and potential recruits. But strategy is important precisely because it concerns the fundamentals that drive corporate performance: what the company’s long-term objectives are; what strategies it intends to employ; and the particular measures that it uses to demonstrate progress towards its goals.

Communication of strategy matters because ultimately, this is how the senior executives – and shareholders - view, measure and judge company performance. The big decisions that can really affect employees’ lives and careers –restructures, closures, divestments or acquisitions - are primarily made on the basis of management’s view on strategic progress, not on their view of the strength of the employer brand. A failure to clearly explain strategy to recruits and employees leads to an incomplete view of the business, in turn making employees far less prepared for events that can have a real impact on them. To borrow a term from the psychologists, the cognitive dissonance that arises when the reality of an individual’s working conditions diverges significantly from the ideal can lead to confusion, cynicism and outright hostility.

Where things have become more interesting recently is that, increasingly, strategic communication isn’t just about the numbers. Companies are starting to integrate the important elements of their non-financial performance into their strategies too. Concepts such as sustainability, citizenship and stewardship are seen as essential components of good governance and good management, and important contributing factors both to a company’s social licence and market competitiveness.

Businesses are gaining the confidence to both act, and be judged on these criteria, giving corporate ethics and values a more central role in strategy, and providing the opportunity for convergence with the focus of employee engagement communications.

Such convergence is welcome, in that it should help give employee brand engagement more depth and honesty. People make career decisions using both reason and emotion, and a well-articulated strategy is a generally reliable indicator of a well-run company, something that is just as important and influential as a positive brand positioning.

A more rounded approach to engagement communications would also serve to create a closer fit between the perceptions of the business that management has, and those that develop in the minds of employees. Not only does this reduce the risk inherent in any misalignment of these perceptions, but also enhances the potential for employees to become true advocates of strategy, as well as brand.

Finally, given that strategy is one of the central themes in external corporate communications, making it more prominent in HR and employee engagement programmes should also result in a better alignment between external and internal communications. This is now something of heightened importance in our connected age, where both prospective and current employees are now far more aware of how companies talk to other stakeholders. If there is an obvious logic in keeping both internal and external and external communications closely aligned does that not also challenge the very notion of an ‘employer brand’ as something distinct and different?

In the end then, employee engagement does come down to hearts – but it comes down to minds as well. Studies that have looked to profile employee types within organisations talk about potential danger companies face from ‘loose cannons’ – that portion of the workplace that is full of enthusiasm and commitment but little sense of what the organisation’s priorities are. Selling a message of aspiration and fulfilment is essential, but engagement needs to remain firmly grounded in business reality. The most effective approach is one that pays just as much attention to direction as it does to inspiration.