The Rules of Employee Engagement? They don't exist

Elena Shalneva
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Indian operators take calls at Quatrro c
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Employee engagement is taking itself very seriously these days. It has its theorists and practitioners, its own Wikipedia page, and an annoyingly persistent PR machine.

According to this discipline’s teachings, there exist fail-proof methodologies that can transform your average office worker – the one who browses Facebook and Mail Online when no one is watching – into someone who “proactively and passionately adds value while aligning with the company mission and operational goals”.

Wikipedia illustrates the concept of “engaged employee” with a photo of an astronaut planting the American flag on the surface of the moon. Yep, I bet he was “engaged” – otherwise he would have died.

For the same reason, those people whose job is to chase criminals, fight fires, or save lives on the operating table must be “engaged” as well.

Outside the life-or-death professions, the few “engaged” employees that I know are a couple of QCs, a bunch of academics, a handful of journalists, and an odd management consultant.

When I think about what these people have in common, a clear pattern emerges: they all work for world-class organisations, with a high degree of freedom and autonomy, doing meaningful things that stretch their intellectual and creative abilities.

Employee engagement apologists don’t give up. Even if your own job is tedious, they argue, you can still be inspired by your organisation’s higher purpose. They cite an example of a Nasa janitor who, when asked what his job was, replied that he helped send a man into space.

Okay, but let’s imagine that instead of working for Nasa, the same janitor sweeps floors in a marketing agency which cooks up ads for some savings account. The account offers 1.3 per cent AER, like everyone else; £6pm overdraft fee, like everyone else; and “superior service”, like everyone else.

Would you still expect the janitor to feel inspired by this “higher purpose”?

And then there are call centre workers – those who answer the phone when your food is late, for example. What glorious end result could they visualise to get through their thankless day? That would be an image of me eating takeaway pizza while watching 30 Rock on Amazon Video. No wonder their service is dire.

But you are forgetting employee communication, the PR machine tells me. Here’s the thing: communication achieves very little when two parties have diametrically opposite objectives.

Consider the owners of the takeaway delivery business. Their objective may be to do an IPO as soon as possible and cash in. While all a call centre worker wants is to hang on until that acting breakthrough finally materialises. And no amount of comms will make her care if my pizza arrives on time.

So please don’t tell me about employee engagement – because I think it’s rubbish. If you are doing a job that you truly, fundamentally enjoy, you will be “engaged” just fine – without the need for motivational speeches from the management or weekly newsletters from HR. But for those of us who work out of economic necessity in the jobs that we just about tolerate, employee engagement campaigns will achieve very little.

Try better money, and transparent career progression, instead.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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