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Thoughts of “Boomerang” Employees

31 Dec

I’m fond of “groaner” joke he learned from our daughter: What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back?

A stick.

Now that we’ve gotten that awful out of the way, I want to share with you the benefits of “boomerang” employees. Those are the folks who leave your employ and then decide to come back to work for you. Many companies find boomerang employees are more productive the second time around, often as a result of learning additional skills while they were away. Their second stay by a boomerang employee may also be a longer one:

“We find that boomerang employees often ‘stick’ longer the second time around,” said Sarah Gutek, VP for human resources at Foremost Insurance. “To keep them longer the second time around, we also offer continuation of service incentives. Basically, if they stay with us for two years after being rehired, we’ll give them credit for all of their previous years of service, as well.” These incentives count towards Foremost’s vacation pay, incentive plans, and service awards programs. (Posted at

So how do we get more former employees to boomerang? There are a number of techniques you can use to stay in touch with those you would like to have back sometime in the future, but it’s clear to us you will also need to create and sustain a work environment and culture which will entice them to return. Consider the following comments from two employees who work for companies recognized as “Best-Places-to-Work”, whose cultures are highly productive and engaging:

“I inquired about the turnover here when I was job hunting and it was extremely low.  In fact, it appeared that anyone who left the company always found the grass was greener here and asked to come back… to which the company always obliged.”

“I’ve been with the company seven years. I was one of the first employees and we now have over 400. In 2005, I foolishly decided I wanted to experience working in another business environment and left. I was back within a year. This is truly a unique place to work and I have been so fortunate to be involved with this company.”

Comments like these are far more frequent at companies where engagement is already quite high. Think about it—would you want to go back to a disengaging workplace?

I admonish you to passionately work on the six universal engagement drivers we’ve uncovered in our book—Re-Engage. Doing so will help you develop the kind of environment that will act as a magnet to entice great employees to “boomerang” back to you.

Otherwise, instead of getting a great employee to return, you’ll just end up with a stick.

What The Janitor Can Tell You About Your Culture

29 Aug

An executive in a professional services firm, known and recognized widely as an engaging, productive workplace, was working late at his office. Most folks had gone home for the night, but he stayed to finish an important report.

As he was packing his briefcase to leave he met the man who was contracted to clean the offices in the evening. The executive had met him before, and he stopped for some small talk.

As their conversation was ending, the janitor said: “People must really like working here”.

“What makes you say that”, inquired the executive.

“That’s easy”, said the janitor.  “People who work here take care of things and treat the building and equipment with respect. They pick up after themselves. At other companies where I work stuff is trashed and broken. They don’t care about the place like employees here. It seems to me if you like where you work you care more about how the place looks. You’re more responsible.”

He’s right. There’s plenty of research out there to support this idea, such as more engaged manufacturing facilities having less equipment problems because employees take better care of them, or more engaged retail establishments having less “shrinkage”, which is our politically correct euphemism for employee theft. We talk about this linkage of employee engagement and key business outcomes in chapter one of Re-Engage.

How we treat employees and what we do to develop a culture that engages our associates can ripple, felt by our employees and those with whom we interact beyond our payroll-customers, vendors and even outside contractors like the janitor.

Want to know whether your workplace is engaged? Ask your janitor.

(Photo courtesty of

Webinar on Re-Engage

24 Jan

I recently conducted a webinar with Quantum Workplace on some of the main elements of our research into employee engagement. I talk about some important trends we see that you need to pay attention to and manage:

  • Employee engagement in difficult times,
  • The impact of generational diversity on employee engagement,
  • How organizational size impacts employee engagement,
  • Whether senior leaders can influence engagement, and
  • The changing role of employee benefits in creating a great workplace.

Two Very Different Ways to Feel Lucky, by Leigh Branham

13 Nov

A post from my colleague and co-author Leigh Branham:

Surveys that have tracked levels of employee engagement since the recession started continue to confirm Quantum Workplace’s findings that employee engagement levels have declined in most companies.  Quantum’s results, based on a comparison of surveys completed in September, 2008, when the economy imploded, and just three months later, revealed that two-thirds of employers saw engagement scores go down, while the other third’s scores actually went up (for insights into how these employers actually increased engagement during tough times, see Chapter Two of Re-Engage).

Both Watson-Wyatt and Hewitt have released surveys showing significant drops in employee engagement over the last two years.  Hewitt’s research reported that 46% of organizations experienced a decline in engagement levels the quarter ending June, 2010, while just 30% saw an improvement.

There’s no longer any doubt that declining engagement among the workforce, triggered by layoffs, job insecurity, overwork of those remaining, reductions in benefits, and paltry pay increases, is having a longer-term detrimental effect.  When Mark and I speak with employees and audiences about engagement and retention initiatives in their companies, many still say that the message they keep hearing from managers is “You should feel lucky to have a job.” 

Of course, anyone with a job should feel lucky when one in ten are unemployed and another seven percent have given up looking for work.  An “attitude of gratitude” is psychologically healthy.  And it’s true that some employees have unrealistic expectations, exaggerated opinions about their own capabilities, and an excessive sense of entitlement.  These employees may need to be reminded to step back and consider their good fortune.  But what about the rest of the workforce?  When they hear those words, are they more motivated?  Apparently not, when most studies find that 60-75% of the U.S. workforce is not engaged.  What concerns me is that many managers seem to feel that telling employees how lucky they are seem to think so.  Even worse, they may even be thinking that saying those words is all they have to do.

It’s almost as if employers have been using the economic downturn as their primary retention strategy.  There is a price to be paid for this approach.  According to exhaustive workforce report released by Deloitte, about one half of the workforce are considering leaving their current jobs, and almost a third are actively looking for work elsewhere.  As the economy slowly recovers, a tipping point will be reached, and a new wave of employee turnover will begin.

In our analysis of “Best-Place-to-Work” winning employers during the last two years, we detected early on a very different message coming from the mouths of employees in these elite organizations.  That message–“I feel so lucky to work here,” reflects a different kind of gratitude.  Employees of companies with the highest engagement scores don’t just feel lucky to have a job, they feel lucky to work in a culture that truly values, respects, and develops them.

One of those winning workplaces is Winchester Hospital, in Winchester, Massachusetts, which built a great workplace by training their managers not to avoid difficult conversations by building their skills and confidence to have those conversations successfully.  They even used their HR staff as coaches, so when a manager needs to prepare for a difficult conversation, they  are available to “rehearse” the conversation with them.  The result–a culture of openness, honesty, and trust that has become the talk of nurses and hospital workers in the community.  Winchester ranks in the 90th percentile in the state in patient satisfaction, enjoys an 87% occupancy rate, an eight percent turnover rate, and an unheard of two percent nurse vacancy rate.  In spite of having to reduce patient volume during the recession, and having to reduce staff hours as a result, Winchester was named the Best Place to Work in Boston in its size category for the second year in a row.

Such practices are available to any employer, but it tales the right mindset to implement them.  At a time when many so employees at your competitors are feeling unlucky and despise where they work, what better time earn their loyalty and admiration?

Why Top Employers Are Talent Magnets

29 Oct

My co-author Leigh Branham contributed to a terrific article posted at on the topic of how more engaged employers attract talented people to their workplaces. The companies profiled in the article build great cultures, an asset that helps them win in the marketplace. The article concludes:

The top five companies to work for stress “employee engagement and encourage (employees) to take initiative, not wait to be told something and not perform a job in a rote way,” Branham said. The upside is that involved employees boost bottom-line results and encourage customer loyalty.

What Goes Into Employee Engagement?

7 Sep

At the Benz Communications blog you’ll find an interview I did with Jennifer Benz on employee engagement and some of the important issues around creating and maintaining a great workplace.

I’ve learned a lot from Jen. She and her team have passion and deep expertise in employee benefits communications. As we go through this significant transformation in health insurance reform it is even more important to create and maintain an open dialog with employees. You can follow her in Twitter, like I do: @jenbenz!

The Alchemy of Great Leaders—Turning Pewter into Gold

29 Aug

I used to work for a company that had a monthly recognition program for employees in my particular role. To be recognized took a lot of work. Although all of us were eligible each month for the award it wasn’t likely you would be recognized every time. But any of us who achieved the specified level of production were publically acknowledged at a monthly celebration.

There was also a tangible gift for those who achieved this level of performance—a pewter goblet.

The goblets are gorgeous. When you pick them up they feel heavy, substantial, like a goblet you might see on King Arthur’s table. And after you got twelve of these goblets you also received a silver serving tray, suitable for use with your nicest china on those special occasions when such finery is required.

Sounds pretty nice, right?

The pewter goblets are impressive, truly. Here’s the problem with pewter goblets around my house… we have gold ware for our fine china. Pewter goblets look great with silverware, but they look horrible with gold ware. For my extraordinary efforts I was awarded a dozen of these beautiful goblets, but have no use for them. Mind you, I’m not Amy Vanderbilt or Martha Stewart, but they just don’t look good together. To enjoy my pewter goblets, I need King Arthur’s pal Merlin to wave his magic wand and turn the pewter to gold.

I need an alchemist.

But, alas, no such luck, so we never used the pewter goblets. Last I checked they’re sitting in a box in our basement, twenty years of dust their only companion. Beautiful as they might be they are of little use to us, so are stowed away with sentimental baby clothes and old family photos.

I’ve witnessed hundreds of stories just like my goblet dilemma. A former client had an outstanding salesperson, who consistently was the number one producer in the organization. The manager thought the best way to recognize him was with an ornate, nicely engraved plaque. It would say “Salesperson of the Year”. The salesperson could hang it on his office wall so everyone could see what a remarkable producer he was, thought the manager.

Turns out the guy doesn’t like plaques.

The plaque never made it onto the office wall. It’s stuck in a drawer somewhere. I don’t need pewter goblets, and this gentleman doesn’t care for plaques. Getting recognition right can make all the difference in the world. It doesn’t take all that much effort, but great leaders are up to the task. The best leaders recognize their employees based not on what they might like but what would be meaningful to the employee. They know:

  • Some people like plaques, others don’t.
  • Some folks like public recognition, and there others (including yours truly) who would rather receive recognition in private.
  • Some employees would appreciate even more contact from their manager as a result of their success, while others would prefer to be left alone.
  • Some whose work has been outstanding would like to be considered for promotion opportunities, while others have more of an interest in finding ways they can grow in their current role.
  • Some of us like pewter goblets and some of us just throw them in the basement.

We are motivated uniquely; we have our own “definition of success”, if you will. What means a great deal to one person can mean nothing to another. Here’s one employee who doesn’t ask for much, but even a simple form of appreciation is lacking:

“I feel that my position does not get the credit it deserves. I would like more personal recognition for a job well done from our team leader. Just verbal praise would be fine but it just does not happen. I’m basically ignored, even though my fellow team members say I’m the most competent project manager in the firm.”

Contrast that with this employee, who is interested in further career opportunities:

“My manager encourages employees to reach out of their departments and grow in other roles if they would like to do so, which is what I want to do. She’s happy with those who want to stay in this role, but is very encouraging and supportive if we have other career goals.”

We spend so much time at work. Most of us work very hard, trying to do a good job. We certainly can, and should, take satisfaction from our efforts, even when they are not noticed by others. Having said that, each of us is wired a bit differently when it comes to how we feel most appreciated. If we’re going to spend all this time working, why not let folks around us know how we like to be recognized? And if we have the privilege of leading others, why not spend some time learning how to best recognize each of the folks that work for you?

So what happened to the salesperson who didn’t like plaques? He truly didn’t like plaques. He did, however, have two daughters who were very important to him, so when he won ”salesperson of the year” yet again the next year his manager surprised him with a professional photograph of his daughters, which the manager had beautifully framed. To this day, that photo hangs on the mantle of the salesperson’s home. He was so taken by the award he told the manager that the day he received the photo was “one of the most important days of my life”. The manager told us the photo didn’t cost much more than the plaque, and has paid for itself a thousand times over.

When this manager took time to learn about what really motivated his colleague and presented him with that photo he did something very special. He proved that the alchemists of old were right. He did something that chemists say you can’t do. He took something of little value and made it precious. He recognized an employee in a way that touched his very soul. That turned an ordinary, predictable task into an unforgettable experience.

He turned pewter into gold.