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The Long View on Employee Engagement

SAN DIEGO—When Georgia Sherrill, PHR, was an HR professional at the store level of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., she focused on the engagement of cashiers, maintenance workers and cart pushers in particular. Maintenance workers keep stores clean, pushers make carts available to every shopper, and cashiers—a vital link—create customers’ final impression before they leave the store.

Sherrill knows about engagement among cashiers firsthand because she started out as a part-time cashier and worked her way into management.

Today, Sherrill serves as Wal-Mart’s senior HR director of integration. Among her previous corporate responsibilities: administering 450,000 engagement surveys to employees worldwide from headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Last year, more than 402,000 workers completed those surveys—either by computer or on paper and in multiple languages, she said during a June 28, 2010 SHRM Annual Conference session held here titled “Driving Employee Engagement Throughout the Organization.”

Despite the complexity of such a large survey, “every minute was worth it,” she said.

Sherrill recommends a British definition of employee engagement, which presents the idea that engaged employees are so emotionally and intellectually committed to their jobs that they want to give “discretionary effort.”

“How do we increase that activity and involvement and effort that they want to give?” she asked. What paths lead to discretionary effort?

Such paths require that employees behave in ways that drive business results, she said. These observable behaviors can be organized into three categories:

  • “Say,” when employees consistently speak positively about the organization with co-workers, potential employees and customers.
  • “Stay,” when employees have intense desire to be part of the organization.
  • “Strive,” when employees exhibit the extra effort and engagement that contribute to business success.

Wal-Mart’s survey features questions to identify the proportions of employees likely to exhibit those behaviors.

Studies show that employees fall into three buckets when it comes to engagement:

  • 17 percent are actively disengaged. They are busy “acting out their unhappiness, undermining what their co-workers are trying to accomplish.”
  • 54 percent are not engaged. “They are sleepwalking through the workday and putting time, not passion, into their work.” This group sits on the fence: Employers have an opportunity to sway their behaviors, Sherrill said.
  • 29 percent “work with passion and feel a profound connection to the organization.”

“Do you want the 54 percent hanging around the 17 percent?” Sherrill asked. “No, because misery loves company.” Disengagement costs the U.S. economy an estimated $300 billion in lost productivity annually, she said.

Every member of the company must accept responsibility for improving engagement, but line managers should take the lead in communicating with employees, she said.

Sherrill outlined six dimensions that aid in improving engagement. They are:

People, specifically senior leaders who model world-class behavior such as listening, calling people by name, communicating and recognizing people openly.

Work that creates connection to the organization, and resources available to support tasks. In the case of Wal-Mart cashiers, for instance, “I knew it was important that they knew how their work tied back to the greater organizational good—and they did know,” she said.

Total remuneration and recognition programs that attract employees. Pay scales must beconsistent, and pay levels must be competitive in the market to make an employer credible. A one-size-fits-all approach does not apply when it comes to pay, she added. Recognition can be assimple as paper certificates.

Opportunities that include career development and training.

Quality-of-life issues that include benefits and work schedules.

Company practices such as diversity, sustainability, company reputation and performance management—the last of which must be perceived as fair and based on goals that align with those of the company.

Every employee should understand how their work impacts the organization, Sherrill said.

Nancy M. Davis is editor of HR Magazine.


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