· 6 min read · Features

The Next Steps: Engagement - Views on engagement

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Whether staff are engaged or not depends on a variety of factors, such as age, sex, education, status and ethnicity. So what does HR need to do to keep its talent? asks Peter Crush.

Where is the HR profession going with the concept of engagement? While many businesses say they measure it (the figure is 42% according to the MORI/Accor Services Engagement Whitepaper, released as we went to press), quite what 'it' is remains a topic of debate.

The MORI research, which surveyed 1,200 employees and 500 employers, found most HR professionals think engagement is about measuring benefits (50%), rewards and incentives (45%), job satisfaction (66%) and the employee's perception of the business (60%). It found that UK's workers' overall feeling of involvement in their work had declined to just half of the population (down from 57% in 2005).

Academics and engagement experts have conceded that what HR measures is up to them, as long as the same metrics, and chosen definition, remain from year-to-year to allow meaningful comparisons to be made. But should HR stop at this? With Gallup maintaining that companies with high engagement scores (equivalent to 70% of staff saying they feel 'engaged') have the potential to reduce staff turnover by 31% and increase productivity by 18%, many commentators believe HRDs have to go beyond these basics.

So where do they go from here? One view is that engagement depends on several innate factors beyond bosses' control - age, education, status in companies, sex and ethnicity - and that projects devised to improve engagement must be flexible enough to take these into account.

Ron Eldridge, director at people retention company Talent Drain, says HR professionals would not expect to implement the same rewards policies or recruitment criteria to different employees, and yet somehow, engagement is still seen as a homogenous measure. Talent Drain has produced groundbreaking research that suggests engagement varies wildly. It analysed more than 16,000 employee engagement questionnaires from 2004-2008. Recording 12 engagement measures, divided into three main categories (organisational commitment, job satisfaction and intention to leave), it found five major findings:

1. EDUCATIONAL DIFFERENCES ABOUND: 'Personal development' is ranked the most important component by a factor of 3:1 for high engagement by those with degrees, compared to 'salary and rewards' for non-university educated staff. Those with a lower education placed higher importance on work values which are more immediate (salary, vertical relationships and wellbeing). "The stand-out finding here was the fact graduates have a high level of commitment, but are equally the most likely to leave," says Eldridge. "There is a fantastic irony here. Engagement at this level is having to help graduates achieve their career aspirations. But, if employers cannot feel they can do this, the obvious question they need to ask is this: if they know so many graduates are going to leave, why are they hiring so many of them in the first place?"

Should HR professionals engage by educational differences? "One size does not fit all," agrees Dina Knight, HR director at NorthgateArinso. "But, I do not think it is sensible going beyond a country against country approach, which is our way of measuring engagement differences. We try not to differentiate - our motto is that we are all in this together - and we feel that all our staff are IT professionals. If you treat people differently by education, I think there is a risk of overcompensating and segregating staff to the point of creating tensions. When everyone is treated the same, it creates accountability and team spirit. I'd have to be convinced by any data that tells me otherwise."

2. OCCUPATION DICTATES WHAT IS IMPORTANT: Strong leadership is considered vitally important by managerial groups but has a negative impact on other occupational groups. Sales staff prioritise loyalty and trust as up to four times more important than do other employees in the organisation. "It's sensible to assume that those who have mundane jobs also have low engagement," says Eldridge. "But there has not been empirical validation of this until now. What's interesting is that I hear lots of these people tell me 'they (the company) want us engaged', but all these people really want is a job, which they'll do well, but which is a means to an end. Unengaged people are not necessarily bad for the company."

Should HR distinguish between different backgrounds? Valerie Dale, head of HR for G4S Security Services, is responsible for more than 15,000 staff. The company teamed up with the British Judo Association to launch the G4S Youth Judo Programme, so the children of all staff could have four free judo lessons at more than 850 participating clubs, and 50% off thereafter. Dale says one reason the scheme was chosen was because it was a single benefit that could foster engagement for all levels of staff. "Judo is not elitist, it's part of local communities, and people could well walk into their local club and be alongside supervisors, MDs or anyone else. They'll be standing side-by-side, they'll be no snobbery. It will be very levelling for staff."

3. WOMEN VALUE RELATIONSHIPS AT WORK: Men place value on transactional values (salary, rewards, careers and benefits) while women's prioritising of working relationships (co-operation and vertical relationships) is the norm (see chart below). "Alan Sugar recently observed that many employers think hiring women is more trouble than it's worth," says Eldridge. "Our research absolutely proves that women have lower intentions to leave, and are more reliable. Women are a group that can be truly engaged with the right management focus. The problem with information like this, is what do you do with it? Does this strengthen the argument for saying women don't value reward, so you do not need to pay them as much, and do lower career aspirations contribute to the glass ceiling?"

The industry says: David Curtis, director of recruitment for women in the workplace consultancy Women Like Us, says: "Our experience is that women are not naturally more or less engaged than men, nor are they more inclined to become disengaged. However, we've found women display higher satisfaction with an employer when bosses accommodate their needs - normally childcare, which remains gender specific. When women see that jobs are designed around them they display what we call a preference to 'reasonably commit to a role'. They show clear personal, work and mental satisfaction." Susan Pritchard, leadership consultant at the Bath Consultancy, adds: "Organisations wishing to make a transformational shift in how women experience their organisation and job roles need to go further."

4. AGE DOESN'T JUST BRING EXPERIENCE, BUT DIFFERENT ENGAGEMENT: The research finds concern for CSR increases with age - counter to the idea that Generation Y view this strongly. The importance of work-life balance also increases with age. "Age regulations have come in for political correctness reasons, but this shows the older workforce can be a more engaged workforce," says Eldridge. "Engaging older workers is no longer a 'PC' issue, but an ROI one."

The industry says: "People's relationship with their workplace affects executives of both sexes and deteriorates as they get older," says Shirley Soskin, MD of consultancy Silverhawk. "But 40 seems to be the age where people fundamentally reassess what they want to give to their company against what they get back. This is the crucial age for introducing flexible working. When people reach this age they feel they have earned to right to work flexibly over, say younger workers."

Should age groups be engaged with differently? "We've worked with the Employers Forum on Age and found there is an age-related engagement curve - high among the young, a dip in the middle, and a peak as people enter their 60s," says Becky Mason, people and policy manager, BT. "But we view this as the norm and accept we can't change it. We would intervene if there were severe levels of different engagement around this curve."

5. ETHNICITY IMPACTS CAREER PROGRESSION ENGAGEMENT: Only one work value was found to be affected by ethnicity, but it is important. All minority groups placed a higher value on the importance of progression than white British workers. Pakistani workers ranked this the highest of any ethnic group - ranking it third out of 12 work values. "It's clearly not a biggie, and it's up to different companies to look at this, but I was surprised at the finding nevertheless," says Eldridge.

Should ethnicity be a factor in looking at engagement? "Our view has long been that there shouldn't be engagement differences among different sets of people - we thought that it either rose or fell according to the external pressures of life - family, and the home. Most organisations I'm sure share this view," admits Donna Miller, European HR director, Enterprise Rent-A-Car. "But we are changing this view now. We're coming around to the idea that so much of engagement and management success is precisely how they deal with diversity, be it working with people of different ages, sex, ethnicity. As a business we must understand different types of people have different inclinations. It makes sense when you think about it. We're about to pilot a management training project which specifically looks at how to build trust within teams that are made up of different people and ethic backgrounds. Our focus is keeping the widest pool of talent possible, and this now means looking at all types of employee."

POINTS TO CHEW OVER:

Where do HR directors go from here now they are armed with this information? The Talent Drain research argues that each of the findings affecting engagement are a strong enough variant in their own right, but they also inter-relate with each other. Points worth remembering could be:

- Educational differences seem not to be impacted by gender. There are no gender differences for job satisfaction. The importance of working conditions does not increase with age for managers and professionals but it does among other occupational groups.

- Organisational confidence increases in importance with age but only for managers.

- There are no interactions between age and gender with respect to employee engagement. The same cannot be said for age and occupation. Young male employees in manual occupations report the least engagement.

- Chinese employees report lower satisfaction levels irrespective of occupation. While white British workers report similar levels of engagement regardless of their occupation, all other ethnic groups show differences in engagement according to their occupation.

- Gender differences around organisational commitment and 'intention to leave' are smaller for degree-level staff.

- There is a strong interaction between gender and occupational classes for all engagement variables excluding managerial classes.