How employee experience could be failing your people

With resignations at the highest they’ve been in 20 years HR’s focus, now more than ever, is on retention. Central to this struggle is HR’s battle to build an employee experience that pleases everyone, as reported by Dominic Bernard

While business leaders have increasingly come around to the importance of the employee experience, HR often finds itself adrift when trying to implement policies that will genuinely benefit employees.

So how can people leaders sort the wheat from the chaff and deliver an employee experience programme that gets results? We put the question to an expert panel for November’s HR Lunchtime Debate in partnership with LumApps.


Defining the employee experience

The panel agreed that in order to stand any chance of improving the employee experience, HR professionals need to consider the experience as a whole.

For Sharon Benson, HR director of Sunrise Senior Living, this means seeing employee experience as something that changes through time for every employee, in distinct phases.

The employee experience, she argued, is something that can take shape even before a recruit joins the company.

“I think sometimes you can oversell an advert or oversell the job – and when somebody arrives, it’s not really what you marketed.

“And so I think it starts with being really honest and transparent about your vacancies, and, actually, what the job entails.”

Benson’s company learned, through starter and exit interviews, about this gap between expectation and reality. By making roles more flexible (as adverts had promised) and by re-adjusting the adverts towards reality, that retention improved.

She added: “We listened to what people were telling us, and then changed that experience to either make it match – or we became a lot more honest.”

Another key impact point, according to Jordan James Barry, chief people officer at the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, is employees’ experience of leadership.

“It’s a bit like the teacher at school that ‘got’ you: they connected with you as a human instead of as another pupil in the class.

“Leadership, for me, is no different.”

Barry is focused on creating a strong employee experience through line-manager capability.

“We really reframed what my managers did. We got them incentivised,” he said.

“During the pandemic, we spent a lot of time equipping them to be confident and articulate in having conversations around mental health, wellbeing, and performance.

“It’s had an exponential effect on our employee experience.”


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Where HR gets it wrong

Shakil Butt, CEO and founder of HR for Hire, said that while Benson and Barry had aptly described what good employee experience management is, many HR practitioners misunderstand employee experience.

“Some HR leaders just see it as a rebranding, and it’s really not. It’s a lot more holistic’” said Butt. “It does include engagement, it does include wellbeing, it does include thinking about the branding and the messaging. It’s all of those things.

“But to paraphrase what employee experience is in a simple way – I would probably quote Michael Jackson: It’s all about the way you make me feel.” 

This failure to see through employees’ eyes, and communicate in a way that’s relatable to them, said Dan Brayshaw, strategic account manager at LumApps, means that very often a company’s communications let down their wider programme.

“We often hear from employees, surveys, and third-party analysts, that a lot of the content they [employees] are receiving is not relevant to their particular role or to their job,” Brayshaw said.

“About 41% of what you share with employees, they would say it’s not relevant to their job.”

Barry nodded, adding: “What I see quite a lot from HR, is this paintball effect of firing lots of things over the fence at the business, using HR speak, and the business doesn’t understand.

“They don’t understand the context, or how it works for them.”

Butt agreed: “I think we have a tendency to hide behind jargon and terminology.”

“It’s easy to do, because it makes us sound clever.

“It comes down to, I suppose, that inferiority complex in the boardroom: wanting to sound important; wanting to sound impactful; trying to rub shoulders with the rest of the senior leadership team.

“But actually, that’s how we lose our voice, because we lose sight of what we actually bring to the table.”


How HR can design an effective employee experience that lasts and genuinely engages

Taking a proactive, collaborative approach to employee experience, the panel agreed, can surmount some of the problems facing HR – as long as senior leadership is on board.

Barry said: “If you co-design, the business ultimately feels engaged, and they get what they want.”

Jargon overload is easily fixed, added Benson, by working with colleagues.

“I might use the word resilient, but if the front line uses ‘thick-skinned’ it should say thick-skinned. No-one ever goes to the pub and says: ‘So, tell me, how engaged are you?’”

It is equally important to make the strategy understandable at all levels of the organisation, said Barry. 

He said: “If you want great business performance, it’s very much linked to clarity over the strategy. Can you actually articulate it in simple terms? And what is every individual person’s contribution to that strategy?”

Likewise, by having a dialogue with employees on how to improve their experience, HR can substantially enhance the experience both now and down the line, said Butt.

“You can’t please all the people all the time – and if you try to, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

“But what you can do is at least reach out and listen, and show that you’ve considered what’s being asked.”

Barry added: “People love options. They hate being forced down a tunnel. That opportunity to individualise your employee experience ultimately comes from people being able to make really clear options about how they work.

“By opening it up you get much better datasets around what your workforce wants from their employee experience.”

Too often, however, HR is caught between an employee base that demands change and leaders that are reluctant to accommodate it.

Barry said: “There are only certain types of leaders that can get their egos out of the way to actually broker that relationship with an HR director. Let’s be really honest.

“What we see, time and time again, around industry, are passive HR functions, who will only ever be support functions and transactional, because there’s no appetite amongst the boards, CEOs and XOs, to give HR a seat at the table, and ultimately change their behaviour.”

HR, he concluded, needs to make sure it has secured a mandate from leadership before it can effect any real change. 


Measuring success

Once senior backing for an HR mandate has been achieved it has to be maintained – and metrics can be vital in retaining this support.

We’re no longer in the age of guesswork and internal gossip, said Butt: “If you want to know what employees are really thinking about you, we are not limited to what’s being said internally anymore.

“Indeed and Glassdoor can tell you exactly what employees are thinking.”

Benson, similarly, said that there are more metrics than ever to track employee experience.

“Sometimes people just go, quickly, ‘What’s your turnover? What’s your absence?’

“There are some other really interesting metrics you can look at in terms of measuring overall culture and the cultural feel of an organisation. 

“Those might be the number of disciplinaries or grievances that you’ve got in the organisation. If you’ve got whistleblowing hotlines, if you’ve got people whistleblowing all the time, or actually, does nobody whistleblow?”

However you measure it, one thing is certain, concluded Butt: “It comes back to how we support everyone being the best versions of themselves, so nobody feels excluded. Because at the end of day, if they’re feeling excluded, then they won’t be there for long.” 

Watch Why your employee experience programme could be failing your people on demand here.

All HR Lunchtime Debates from HR magazine.


The piece above appears in the November/December 2021 print issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.