Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Onboard or overboard?

I'm researching a piece on 'onboarding' - the effort an employer makes to welcome you into your new role - at the moment and was reflecting on the good and bad experiences I've had over the years.

The way you're inducted (or is it induced?) into your new working life can make a huge difference to your attitude to the role and how engaged you become in the business. At best, it can set you on the way to becoming the perfect ambassador for the business. At worst, it can send you overboard all too quickly. I've had both.

Quite early in my career I joined a big national company and found that my boss had cleared his diary on my first day to ensure he was on hand to answer all my questions and show me the ropes. He also made sure all the hygiene issues of security badges, car parking and all the rest were sorted before I started so that I had a smooth entry into the business. During week one, he'd set up a series of meetings tailored to exactly what I was going to be involved in so that I got a little face time with the key people right up front. For the rest of the week, I shadowed my colleagues in the team, going to their meetings and learning how things got done in the firm by being involved. In between these meetings I had all the usual health and safety stuff - and on Friday lunchtime, we all went out for a team lunch. Within a week, everything felt familiar and I felt I was a contributing member of the team.

Contrast that with a project a few years ago when I turned up as the new communications lead for a new phase of an ongoing project for a major transport infrastructure operator. I arrived as planned on day one at the new office to find the building door locked. I had no pass to get into the building and, even after following someone into the reception area, found the project team were secluded behind another locked door. I rang my new boss - but her phone was on voicemail. I rang her boss - my main client - and found she was set to be on leave all week. Eventually, someone came out of the office and let me in.

I was met by silence from a dozen people ranged around a long narrow room, with all their work stations facing the wall. No-one knew who I was or why I was there. There was a narrow window at one end of the room - needless to say, the only spare work station was right at the other end - and that was mine.

Day one was useless. My boss was off site. I had no security pass, no log-in to the system; nothing to do and no means of generating my own work. My new 'colleagues' made no effort to help and were reluctant to to talk to me. They all headed off for a meeting at lunchtime, and didn't return for the rest of the day.

I nearly didn't bother coming in on day two. I did, and spent most of it getting all the necessary passes and log-ins sorted - time consuming admin that could have, and should have, been sorted before my arrival. I didn't meet my boss until day three - and even then she had no onboarding plan for me. I was very much left to my own devices.

The programme experience improved a little after that first couple of days, but I never felt settled in the role and was secretly delighted when the who thing was canned about six weeks later when the business was suddenly put up for sale.

The old adage of 'you have only one chance to make a first impression' is all too true with onboarding. And in these days where an engaged organisation is the holy grail, you really need to pay attention to getting that initial welcome right.

But what does 'right' look like? Care to share?

Monday, March 08, 2010

Squaring the employee engagement circle?

I started a discussion on LinkedIn in the Melcrum Communicators' Group about Employee Engagement being a misnomer. My argument - shown below - comes from my feeling that though we've coined the term, we haven't really agreed a strict definition of what EE is. But there's a stronger point emerging in my mind too: that's the feeling that to place the responsibility for EE with IC devalues it and makes it unattainable. Anyway, some of the heavy hitters in the field are now weighing in to the debate. It'll be interesting to see how it develops further. Please do get involved, either by commenting on this blog, or here in the Melcrum Group if you're a member.

Here's my opening question - and the response (with names removed) to date:

Is employee engagement a misnomer?
So, employee engagement's the holy grail for successful organistions. But why have we coined this phrase? It hardly sounds inclusive does it? Doesn't the employer need to be engaged too? And in fact anyone who works alongside the organisation like your key suppliers and any temps/contractors or outsourced functions. So are we limiting ourselves by a poorly thought-out name?

The problems organisations face in this post-recession world are pretty-much common to all: keeping the best performers; continuing to drive productivity; growing market share; attracting the right people.....and for those already there, doing more with less. And there's a growing consensus that the best way to deliver on high productivity demands is to have an engaged organisation. Macleod defines this as being underpinned by four enablers:Leadership, Engaging Managers, Voice and Integrity. All are vital - but perhaps difficult to achieve if we continue to call it 'Employee' engagement.

So is it time to ditch the term - and what could succeed it as a more relevant shorthand for what we're all striving to achieve? And are MacLeod's enablers sufficient?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Posted 5 days ago Delete discussion

Comments (12)


Not just ditch the term--cremate and bury it too.

The one-way nature of the term belies the cynicism exhibited by a good share of organisations who see it as a way to generate extra productivity cheaply--and by practitioners touting unsustainable returns on investment for ginning up one-way "employee engagement" schemes built on implicit promises that organisations may not be willing or capable to honour.

Engagement is at a minimum a two-way street. But in the current environment, where organisations have been pulling back from a lot of traditional commitments,multi-directional re-engagement across the stakeholder universe becomes vital. And, playing a pivotal role, organisations may need to reshape their workforce relationships completely to be able to engage their workforces to support their customer and stakeholder agendas.

Employees have more external credibility than corporate spokespeople these days, and while internal communication needs to continue to support employee productivity, it needs to raise its game to support employees as a credible external communication channel. Abandoning the inward--and often cynical--mentality embodied in the term "employee engagement" is a crucial step.

I think the majority agree (and repeatedly agree) that the term 'employee engagement' is imperfect and for all sorts of reasons.

Here are my top 3:-
1. the term 'employee' is myopic
2. 'employee' and 'engagement' are two highly misunderstood terms in their own right - put them together and it creates a different order of magnitude in ambiguity (and let's not even discuss 'employee-brand-engagement')
3. employee engagement 'professionals' have been dining out on this ambiguity for years without shifting the results, driving even more cynicism.

I do not believe that a name change will not get over the deep-rooted cynicism (think: Consignia-->Post Office, Personnnel --> HR) as you point out Mark the term has been coined so why not capitalise on it? (Ironically, the four enablers you reference from "Engaging for success" introduce even more ambiguous terms e.g. "strategic narrative")

I do believe the priority for the profession is to keep the name and raise their game.

There are currently 3 debates running on professions changing the name of their offer:-
1.change management
2.internal communications
3.employee engagement

They have at least 3 things in common:
1.They all talk about holistic offers with very specialist disciplines, so therefore difficult to define and ended up with generic terminology.
2.The impression of distressed professions lacking confidence in their own ability.
3. Angels dancing on the head of a pin.

"Keep the name and raise their game" just about says it all for me. I recall you saying something similar recently about the need to focus on action rather than re-definition.

I think no one word or short combination of words will ever accurately reflect what we'd all like it to and this should not deflect us from striving to do our best for our companies or clients.

Agree with J, let's not use management science terms to define the hell out of this so we lose touch with the people with whom we're supposed to be 'engaging'. Remember it's not the language our people speak.

Agree with MK and others. It feels like just the latest catch-all phrase to describe what the organisation wants - like "employee/internal branding" and "loyalty" before it. And while it implies a two-way relationship, the reality is usually trying to extract greater productivity and ideas from the people in the organisation.

Conversation with Liam Fitzpatrick recently when we were presenting a masterclass on internal comms - he also highlighted the degree to which it's become meaningless because everyone can re-define it to encompass whatever they're doing at the moment.

It also calls to mind an issue that I don't think is much discussed yet amongst we comms professionals - where do we draw the line between permissible expectations of our employer organisations and over-reaching demands that encroach on people's personal lives? Communications sent home?

Much of the talk of recent years smacks of one-way demands, even when dressed up in the talk of personal development - "emotional engagement", "bringing our whole selves to work", etc. Why? Who benefits?

And in my experience it's often not accurate either - emotions can be negative as well as positive, but those are not welcome at work, presumably.

The problem is that employee engagement is a term coined to provide a common focal point for addressing a multitude of problems. Like most such terms it will mean different things to different people and be used to drive different agendas. Ultimately it boils down to language and the fact that as human beings we can seldom be sure that any word or phrase means exactly the same to one person as to another. If be killed the term and cremated and buried it we would still be left with finding something else to convey all the term is intended to convey.

The real issue is not the term, but the fact that it has become part of the management lexicon and so joined the ranks of management speak. It has thus become part of a top-down solution to improve organisational performance and so will - for that reason - always arouse suspicion amongst the very people that are supposed to be engaged.

Mark Shanahan - second contribution

Excellent responses and builds. I dislike the term employee engagement but I'll use it as the common coinage here. But I'd like to throw out a further question: why are so many organisations making employee engagement a responsibility of internal comms? To me, comms is just one enabler but the 'task' of employee engagement still seems to reside firmly in the IC camp in a number of organisations I work with. Is there a more appropriate place in the existing organisation for employee engagement: a place where it can be co-ordinated and driven truly effectively? Or do we need to create a new function that enables the kind of multi-directional approach that MK raises?

It strikes me that however good the IC effort, we'll never reach engagement nirvana if its not matched by the right leadership behavours, systems and policies, culture and environment elsewhere in the organisation.

I find it interesting that management theories seem to have decided that certain things coming together will facilitate employee engagement (though no two agree on what), but they look at completely different ways of describing highly motivated and successful leaders. One group of leadership gurus found that the examples leaders gave of their "career best experiences" had something in common. Those experiences occurred when they were working in an organization that needed the competencies they were good at and were passionate about. Isn't it just that simple for employees? Before offering/accepting a job or promotion, employees and employer need to agree that 1) the candidate would be good at the job (not just someone who excelled in a previous job and was due a promotion), 2) the organization needs and rewards the things the employee is good at, and 3) the employee feels passionate about getting the things done the job requires. They call this the "sweet spot." Applying this concept to having the majority of employees finding their sweet spots would mean that the organization would know what kinds of employee skills and behaviors are truly needed and valued, there would be a training/development program geared to finding and developing people with those skills, and making assignments of people based on what they truly enjoy doing. I'm not sure how employee communication would make any of that happen.


Hooray! a debate about a term that's not properly understood, not universally defined and probably no better at getting to beneficial organisation outcomes than good, old fashioned job satisfaction.

I wonder if the fad gurus have got organisations so fired up about another sticking plaster solution to what essentially is poor management, that they don't care that it's not universally agreed and if there is no proper (and tested) definition, it can't be measured in any way accurately.

Iit's highly unfashionable - not to mention financial suicide - for consultants to be so post modern in their views, but I too wonder about the ethics of trying to "engage" employees past the normal activities of their role. The decline of trust in organisations, the slavish attention to the shareholders means that employees KNOW - whatever the management says - that they are a cost on the balance sheet and can be "trimmed". In which case, where does the whole concept of engagement fit in?

And even the definition of the term is so managerial, it's doesn't really allow for the possibility of two way discussion(MK). However, unlike AS, I do think that IC has a role to play here if only to support the whole idea of voice that is a major part of some of the older (and less fashionable) models which once guided the development and creation of jobs. This thinking also had feedback as a crucial element of how employees feel about their role and while this is primarily line manager led, it can also be a corporate responsibility.

But for me, the key objection to the whole notion of engagement is that it doesn't work without trust. Trust has been (and still is) in short supply, with UK public sector organisations in particular glancing nervously over their shoulders wondering when the 14-26% cuts are going to hit, and who will get the chop.

OK - rant over and I'm going to go and watch some mindless TV.

So many views, so little consensus, and no surprise. I rest my case on why I believe noone will ever come up with a better terminology than 'employee engagement' despite its flaws.
Despite the valid diversity of viewpoints I cannot believe that anyone would ever question the role that employee communications plays in engagement.
However, I do believe that when your only tool in your toolkit is a hammer, every problem is a nail.
Without putting a spanner in the works (pun intended) how about a debate around the value of measurement vs communication in driving employee engagement?


In spite of my earlier comment, I do believe communication plays many different possible roles in enhancing the chances that engagement can occur. I even wrote an article for Melcrum a few years ago about Linking Communication to Engagement--and the link happens through research. So...I don't see the issue as the value of measurement VS. communication; they work together.


This debate is important - both parts of your question are entirely valid Mark, as is each response above. I remember a heated debate on this and getting very frustrated - to me this definiton is a great example of how our industry has taken something that's hugely emotive and means something different to each person, and tried to over define and over-process it. If I remember rightly, the whole concept arose out of decades of academic research (the concept of 'affective commitment' isn't it?) that became trendy c. 2000 with the talent wars etc.

So each employer knows that if people feels good about the work they do they do it better and will contribute more. And each person in the organsition (at all levels and roles) feels more equipped to give their best if the culture allows them to and they feel it supports them, is genuine and initiatives not contrived. So we want to spread a positive emotion, and then go at it in a formulaic and programmatic way? I guess it's about balancing the risk - but for comms practitioners this is a very difficult balance.

Internal Comms is crucial to any engagement 'programme' as Angela says. How can we achieve any progress across an organsiation without effective communication of some sort? But Mark's points on the wider ingredients of the content and perception of comms (leaders' behaviours, policies etc) are also pertinent. Should the IC team own engagement? We go full circle to owning that emotion, that 'click', that feeling of connection that engaged people and engaged organisations have.

Like any good role brief, I think it comes down to clearly defining what the end goal (success) is to be and then both sides understanding what they're asking of each other. Maybe that would bring clarity to Sean's prompt above. And I hope there'd be different answers from place to place...

Monday, March 01, 2010

Let's not forget the basics

I spent the greater part of this morning with a client turning an inside-out document the right way round.

The document was a detailed project update as the organisation approaches a major milestone on its change journey. It was written by the programme manager and the comms lead sensed it wasn't quite up to scratch. He'd tried to turn it round, but felt that a fresh pair of eyes would help.

He was right, and over a fruitful few hours the work became an object lesson in getting the basics right.

First, there was no clarity on what the piece was meant to achieve. It was more than just an update - buried in the text was a call for some very specific actions. That was half the problem - the important stuff was buried. Much of this morning has been spent digging it out and making sure the call to action would help achieve the project manager's desired outcome.

Second, the piece was written from an internal perspective: the writer simply hadn't put himself in his audience's shoes. There was far too much about what he knew rather than what his audience needed to know. A lot of that was context setting. It wasn't necessary at this point in the change journey. We stripped out the bulk of the context and added some links to past updates - if people want to know the full back story, there's a 'compelling narrative document' underpinning all the comms. There's now a link in the latest update to that.

Third, the piece was written in a mix of passive language and project jargon. Just making the language active made it far less clumsy; far more direct. Turning the project jargon into the everyday language of the business made it more accessible and much more straightforward.

Finally, there was the sheer bulk of the piece. Everything including the kitchen sink was in there: one size fitting at least two, probably three, distinct audiences. We've certainly come up with three slimmed-down versions of the document now - each aimed at a specific segment of the stakeholder audience.

It has actually been refreshing to go back to first principles and turn around something that no-one would have read into a piece of communication that really meets a need. It's being road-tested on a few internal bods this afternoon - I'm looking forward to the feedback.