I was having a recent conversation with John Sumser where we discussed my need to be an engaged employee. Indeed, I’m that guy who is almost always engaged because I honestly love my work. I’m one of those unique people who actually find the world of HR and HR technology interesting. In general, I’m the typical, highly engaged employee. I generally overachieve, I almost always exceed my goals, my clients love me because I execute great work, on time, and usually under budget. However, we all know that our companies and our direct managers are also major influencers of our engagement, and I believe that one can be completely engaged with the work, but not the company. I can overachieve on client projects, but completely underachieve on internal projects when things in management go wrong.
One of the things I love about Sumser is that he is always the skeptic. HR has been talking about employee engagement for years, and we truly believe that we can make both our organizations better and our employee’s lives better by getting high engagement from them. But here’s another take on it. Rather than making our employee’s lives better, what we are really trying to achieve is to suck the additional effort and work time from them, with nothing in return. We’re not going to pay them more. They will do more work than the person next to them, but not get more benefits or retirement money. We all know that the linkage between performance and incentive compensation is pretty much broken in almost all organizations. Most of us also know that the complete “schmuck” sitting at the manager’s desk in front of us had the same opportunity to advance as the great manager next door to him/her, so development and career progression does not always identify the right person either. The bottom line is that I can be a middling employee and reap all the same benefits as the great employee.
I have a nephew working in IT at a retail company who takes great pleasure in the free lunches that are provided. Many organizations have offered this type of service in the past, and while it’s nice to save everyone $10 that they don’t spend on a sandwich at the deli, every organization also realizes that at $40k per year, the organization is saving $20 by keeping the employee working at their desk over the lunch hour.
Perhaps being a great employee provides me a marginal enhancement to gaining better rewards, but that probability does not make up for the additional effort I’m going to provide as an engaged employee. For those of us who work 70 or 80 hour work weeks, most of us are not going to double our salaries. But we do this because we either believe there is something in it for us, or because we love something about what we do. I think it’s perfectly valid for us to “sell” employee engagement as something that benefits the organization and the employee. But perhaps we should be honest at least with ourselves: at the end of the day we really just want our employees to work that extra hour without having to pay them for it.