Engagement Efforts Can Restore Faith in Leaders

By Catherine Skrzypinski Aug 16, 2011
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In the aftermath of the debate over raising the United States’ debt ceiling in August 2011, Americans are questioning the strength of leadership in Washington. The debt ceiling debacle mirrors what is happening in offices around the world, as many organizations face similar issues regarding employee engagement and faith in company leadership.

Researchers and consulting firms define “employee engagement” as the level of a worker’s commitment and connection to an organization. When employees are highly engaged, they invest physical, mental and emotional energy into their jobs. As a result, they tend to find new and innovative ways to contribute to their company’s success.

Yet, human resource experts say, the economic crisis that began in September 2008 continues to create fear and a sense of hopelessness among employees, which in turn affects their level of engagement.

“Employee engagement often takes a turn for the worse during an economic downturn,” Dennis Kravetz, head of HR consulting firm Kravetz Associates in Scottsdale, Ariz., wrote in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “In a worsening economy, employers who are not very forward in their thinking may cut back on training to save money. They may freeze employee travel to conferences and may put a hold on promotions and salary increases.”

“All of these factors can lead to employees not being as engaged as before, particularly because they see career development being scaled back,” he added.

Richard Couglan, a senior associate dean and associate professor of management at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business in Richmond, Va., said many employees are working at companies where there are new senior leaders because of mergers or turnover.

“This, combined with economic uncertainty, means employees have not yet built levels of trust in leadership,” Couglan said. “Before they choose to engage, employees are looking for signals about these leaders and what their organizations will do to improve during difficult times.”

“Some employees have been suffering from ‘downturn fatigue’ [since the beginning of the financial crisis in September 2008], while others are waning because they still cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Michael Denisoff, SPHR, CEO of Denisoff Consulting Group in Los Angeles.

The American labor force is discouraged because companies across the country can no longer provide job security, experts explained. This means that employees pay close attention to how senior leaders conduct business.

“Employees know that leaders, particularly executives, make a lot of money, and [employees] expect them to rise up to the leadership challenge of the times,” Denisoff added. “If the executives play small or hide, cynicism will grow quickly.”

‘Confidence in the Company’

According to a report distributed by Modern Survey, a Minneapolis-based firm that conducts employee surveys, engagement levels have fallen slightly among American workers since August 2010.

The survey, which was published in June 2011 and reflects feedback from February 2011, revealed that:

  • Sixty-nine percent of survey participants said they take pride in working at their company, down from 73 percent in 2010.
  • Fifty-five percent intend to stay with their company, down from 62 percent.
  • Fifty-one percent said they go “above and beyond” their job tasks, a decrease from 58 percent.
  • Forty-one percent said they see a promising future at their company, down from 48 percent.

The report indicated that confidence in senior leadership and the overall direction of the organization keeps employees engaged in their work—even more than does interaction with their direct line managers.

“Confidence in the company” is the strongest predictor, of the factors analyzed, of an employee’s inclination to seek the help of a union, the report noted. Nearly 72 percent of the respondents who expressed confidence in their company said they would vote “no” to union representation. The survey explored the impact of pay, benefits and employee participation and their influence on union organizing as well.

The State of a Union

The Modern Survey report noted that business leaders need to pay attention to employee engagement levels within an organization. If senior management helps foster positive relationships between employees and management, it becomes less likely that employees will seek union representation.

HR professionals say disillusioned employees often turn to unions when they feel neglected by upper management and lack career advancement opportunities for various reasons—including office politics and the inability to make lateral moves.

“Employees join unions because they believe they don’t have a voice of their own,” Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of the Northampton, Mass. consultancy Human Resource Solutions, wrote via e-mail. “The union convinces them their company will pay attention when they come in and represent the entire workforce.”

However, employees turn to unions as a last resort, Rick Dacri, president of Dacri & Associates in Portland, Maine told SHRM Online. “Unlike in previous generations, unions lack the mystique they once had,” he stated. “Employees do not view them as a savior or protector.”

Approximately 8 percent of the U.S. workforce was unionized as of August 2011, according to Kravetz, who added that the primary growth areas for unions have been in the federal government and in service sectors like education.

To prevent employees from flocking to unions, managers must demonstrate that people are their best assets, explained Michael Y. Brenner, founder of IdeAgency, a consultancy in Philadelphia.

HR experts cited the following actions as most effective in preventing unionization:

  • Communicating in a straightforward, supportive and factual manner.
  • Treating employees with dignity and respect, and showing them that the company “has their back” during stressful times.
  • Reassuring employees that they are making a difference and are contributing to the company’s bottom line.
  • Offering employees a competitive compensation package.
  • Providing employees with a safe and healthy work environment.
  • Investing in training and education and developing their skills and abilities continually.
  • Giving overworked employees time to “recharge their batteries” after a busy period.

“Employers must be honest with employees, maintain their dignity, provide challenging work, address grievances, value their contributions and, above all, treat them like people instead of robots,” Brenner added.

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance journalist in Newport News, Va.

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