Such phrases as “You get to keep your job, that’s your reward,” or “We’re in business to make money, not to make employees happy,” were once common for employers to say to employees, but are appalling these days. And rightfully so; but the philosophies behind them were all too common when I first started my career.
When I landed a job in the staffing industry in the early 1990s, if I had walked into a customer meeting and told them they needed to look for ways to retain the employee knowledge and skills they were losing, engage their remaining employees, and create a sense of purpose for their organization, they would have laughed me right out of the room.
With state unemployment hovering around 9 percent at the time, Michigan companies weren’t worried about keeping employees or about keeping them happy. HR departments were too busy to read a new academic paper about something called “employee engagement.” And employees didn’t come to work to find meaning. That’s what their personal lives were for, and it was separate from their work life: no cellphones, no laptops, no social media, no email notifications buzzing in the middle of dinner.
It’s a different universe today. Companies are expected to be good corporate citizens and not only engage their workers but create a positive employee experience that encourages people to bring their best selves to work each day. Employees now serve as brand ambassadors, carry mobile devices that keep them connected to work, and are supposed to bring innovation and energy to every task. The lines between work and life have blurred to the point that work-life balance looks more like work-life fit or integration.
Today’s workers no longer give their loyalty freely; there’s a price to earning their effort, and it goes well beyond a paycheck. If employees are going to work for a company, they want it to mean something. And that means companies — at the highest levels of leadership — need to deliver that sense of purpose loud and clear. In return, leaders can expect to see happier customers and a significantly higher return on sales.
Plenty has been written about how to improve employee engagement. Having interacted with job seekers throughout my career provides me with a unique perspective of where senior leaders can make a real difference, Consider:
Message continuously: Executives tend to be highly efficient people who see repetition as wasted effort. But that’s not the case when explaining your company’s purpose and creating a sense of meaning for employees. Purpose needs to be ingrained into the fabric of the company, woven into everyday conversations about customers, competitors and business objectives, and shared even after you think you’ve shared it enough. It needs to be communicated until it’s an integral part of the way an organization operates.
Market inward: You wouldn’t dream of not marketing a product that could triple your return on sales, so don’t miss the opportunity to market your company’s purpose to your employees. This goes beyond catchy slogans or posters in the break room. Think of employees as your best and most knowledgeable consumers of your company’s culture; capture their hearts and imagination, listen to their input, and get them involved in telling your story.
Live your ideals daily: There’s a reason it’s called an employee experience. A company can have a genuine purpose and market it flawlessly — but if the messaging doesn’t align with what employees see and hear at your company, then it’s just meaningless window dressing. Senior leaders need to live out the organization’s ideals in everyday interactions with employees, customers, and other stakeholders. That’s what brings a company’s purpose to life. Take it from me — when you have recruiters hosting resume review sessions for a local non-profit, on their own time, because they see it as an extension of a company’s purpose, you know you’re doing something right.
Creating an engaged workforce can’t be delegated to employee engagement teams or HR initiatives; senior leaders across every function need to step up to the plate. But the payoff for that effort can be big — better access to better talent; stronger financial results; and the knowledge that you’re making a difference in people’s lives.
Jack Van Tiem is the Detroit territory vice president for Troy-based Kelly Services, a global leader in providing workforce solutions. He oversees the staffing and business solutions operations throughout metro Detroit, with a focus on staffing for automotive, manufacturing, retail, financial services, and technology.