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RISMEDIA, July 8, 2010—The recession has proven to be a worrisome challenge to Debra Kraft, a regional marketing director for a large media company. Her organization sells advertising and publishes coupon mailers across a five-state territory. When the economy began to shrink, the organization’s advertising sales volume shrank along with it and she was forced to lay off staff. But Kraft was proud of the way her remaining workers persevered and kept the mailer afloat through those tough times.

She was particularly pleased with six of her local sales managers who posted the organization’s strongest numbers during the depth of the downturn. In some cases they even set new records for sales and collections. So, when Kraft’s organization announced plans to conduct a survey measuring employee engagement, she was genuinely excited. Kraft fully expected the survey to confirm that her local sales office staffs were among the strongest and most engaged in the entire organization.

However, when the results were presented, Kraft was shocked to learn that her region suffered from one of the lowest levels of employee engagement within the corporation. Even worse, her staff’s satisfaction levels with their employment and management were extremely dim. In the final analysis, the report suggested that Kraft’s region would most likely see a lot of staff turnover in the months ahead.

Ironically, Kraft’s dilemma isn’t unique. Very often when a unit or department operates above average, particularly during a business downturn, the employees may feel both overwhelmed and underappreciated. To make matters worse, employers in these circumstances often tend to withhold discussion of promotions and career paths. After all, why talk about the future when the organization might be lucky just to survive the recession?

So, instead of seeing their success as a triumph in tough circumstances, high-performing employees tend to see it as an economic necessity, born of desperation. Thus, when the job market starts growing again, many frustrated workers become inclined to move on to ‘greener pastures.’

The State of the Workplace
A great many organizations today wrestle with the challenge of employee engagement. Employees in thousands of organizations across many different industries report high levels of frustration and low motivation. Because of these frustrations, productivity levels are falling, careless mistakes are mounting and worker loyalty is evaporating. Clearly this doesn’t bode well for corporate budgets and profits. Apart from lost productivity and rework, the true cost of low employee engagement is millions of dollars in turnover that plague organizations struggling with disengagement. According to TTI Metrics, the cost of a disengaged worker averages 2.5 hours per day. Add those hours throughout the year and multiply by the number of disengaged employees, and the totals are staggering.

A key factor driving the current level of disengagement may be exhaustion. Many employees have had to pick up the slack due to downsizing, and that could spell trouble for managers as the economy strengthens. Your top employees—those who held things together during the recession—may well be looking for a change as new jobs become available. This is a critical time for employers to measure the engagement levels of their workers. Only by understanding employees’ true level of commitment can you be certain to hit the ground running when business begins to take off.

The Power of Engagement
Employee surveys are nothing new. While the link between employee dissatisfaction and low productivity has long been recognized, today we also realize that employees’ perceptions should be aligned with corporate values, and vice versa. We understand that, among other things, engaged employees are:
-Focused more on getting work done than on “filling time.”
-Enthusiastic about their jobs and the mission at hand.
-More willing to do what it takes to get the job done.
-Emotionally invested in the company.
-Proud of their role in the organization.

Employee engagement surveys can also pinpoint exactly which level of employees are most vulnerable. For example, in today’s environment, many firms are finding that their youngest employees—their Millennials—are at the highest risk for turnover. Why do so many organizations have such a difficult time holding onto their Millennial employees (those 30 years and under)?

Many leaders feel that this generation is a unique and impatient breed, one that has trouble staying-put for long periods of time. Some might argue that Millennials leave because they don’t have the traditional promotable opportunities they want, or they are not getting them quickly enough. Some say their insistence on working to live rather than living to work impedes their career progression. Others mistake their high level of education and immediate workplace demands as arrogance. Regardless of the source of conflict, your organization needs to keep them engaged, utilize their talents and develop multi-generational teams for high performance.

Employee engagement surveys can be administered easily with a minimum of disruption in the workplace. Armed with a concrete measure of engagement, your organization can effectively craft strategies to rejuvenate company culture, training and development, succession planning and career development.

For example, when Kraft learned that her employees were discouraged by a perceived lack of recognition, she instituted a special recognition program and began discussing career path opportunities with her top performers. The survey also taught Kraft to ensure that all of her employees were a ‘good fit’ for the jobs they occupied—thus heading off additional disengagement.

Dr. Jan Ferri-Reed is the President of KEYGroup a 30-year-old international speaking, training and assessment firm. Ferri-Reed has presented a variety of programs to thousands of managers and employees in a diverse range of organizations across the globe. Her work focuses on creating cool workplaces that attract, keep and get the most from your talent and increasing the bottom line.