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Relying on "fixed grin" employee engagement during economic downturn could be fatal

Reducing emphasis on employee engagement because of the economic climate would be "fatal" for organisations, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has said.

According to the author of the institute’s newly published report on sustainable organisation performance, reducing resources allocated to improving employee engagement could cause damage to organisations in the long term.

The institute’s research adviser, Jill Miller, made the comments at their Employee Engagement Conference in London on Thursday.

During a panel discussion, Miller discussed with representatives from Standard Chartered Bank, Big Lottery Fund and Pfizer how reduced liquidity among organisations in both public and private sector could mean HR departments reducing their emphasis on engagement.

But when asked by HR whether the fear among the UK workforce over reduced pay and redundancy could act as an alternative motivation towards greater productivity, Miller said: "Having that sort of forced engagement is not great. If HR took that view it could be fatal.

"When things do pick up those people who are just working hard because of job losses are going to be out the door straight away.

"It’s a short-term mentality that is not sustainable. If organisations stop engagement because of tight resources and then pick it up again in the good times, you may have some cynicism and resistance among staff because engagement isn’t really that embedded."

Miller’s report, Sustainable organisation performance What really makes the difference? covers the institute’s two-year research programme Shaping the future, and concludes that "There is a big difference between the conditions that can accompany strong organisational performance in benign economic times or over the short-term, and those that yield the kind of sustained organisational performance, through good times and bad, that all organisations truly strive for."

The research tracked the progress of six organisations, and involved contributions from 11,000 practitioners through round table events, polls and online discussions.

Miller said that the key findings within the report for HR practitioners were over the locus and form of engagement.

"People could be engaged for the short term but its sustainable engagement that takes us forward. Long-term engagement is really an emotional connect with something.

"Organisations should not be relying on what we call the ‘fixed grin’, with people just really grateful they’ve got a job rather than thinking ‘I really want this organisation to succeed’.

Glen Clayton, chief executive of consultants HDA and chair of the conference, told HR that while the economic downturn provided a new setting for employee engagement, its repercussions did not translate into universal imperatives.

"The context has obviously changed. There is potentially disengagement with the original objectives and principles of the business," Clayton said.

"But it is a context. I don’t see it as some kind of rule that says change and difficult times mean disengagement.

"I can see a logic for being more honest about the things that the organisation can’t do, the limits that its in and so on but I think that’s more reason to engage with your staff and to find the linkages around what you can engage around."