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Employee engagement is vital for HR success

Employee engagement is the hottest topic in HR today, according to leaders throughout the country.

The results of the latest HR Business Network poll have revealed that engagement is the top priority for more than a third of those surveyed.

Some 35 per cent of voters said it was the crucial element of HR to get right, followed by 24 per cent who flagged up ‘leadership and development’.

A further 20 per cent believe that tackling the question of ‘how HR can influence the business’ is the top priority, 11 per cent opted for ‘recruitment and talent management’, and just four per cent said the focus should be on ‘employment law’.

One option in the poll got no votes whatsoever: career development.

The survey of over 2,500 HR Business Network members highlights how organisations believe they can manage best in a time of cuts and stretched budgets.

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Dr Ian Roper, director of programmes for human resources management at Middlesex University and specialist in employee engagement, said the results provided an interesting insight into current priorities in HR.

He said it was perhaps too early to say if ’employee engagement’ is just a current fashion or if it will become integral to organisations for years to come, but it reflects what he sees in academia, with many students choosing it as an area of study.

“We did have concepts like ’employee empowerment’ a few years ago, but that idea seems to have disappeared. However, the idea of engagement seems to encapsulate a lot more about what’s important.”

He said engagement tied in with the idea of ‘psychological contracts’ between staff and employers. On one side, employers were looking for values like commitment and loyalty from their staff, who in turn seek opportunities to progress through the organisation, and job security.

And these ‘unwritten’ contractual agreements get tested when budgets are cut and redundancies loom. He said perhaps that is a reason why engagement is such a priority at the moment, because organisations know they need to perform in this area in order to keep hold of their talent through tough times. But he also warned that the notion of employee engagement could be in danger of employee cynicism if it became associated with the more negative aspects of ‘change management’ initiatives, if they were mere euphemisms for downsizing and redundancy.

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Chris Wilkinson, Client Services Director for Right Corecare said: “Employee engagement is the most important factor because it is so key to staff retention. In these difficult times anything HR can do to reduce staff turnover costs is an imperative, not to mention the cost of up-skilling a new member of staff because you have allowed a talented member of the team leave.”

Heidi Pegrum, Director of Human Resources for Wyboston Lakes Limited, added: “Employee engagement is key to achieving business objectives. Recruitment will always be a high priority but, on an ongoing basis, if companies can get the engagement aspect right, it makes all the other elements of running a business, and HR, easier too.

“This is yet another difficult year and a company’s commitment to employee engagement is going to be essential to avoiding losing the company knowledge, experience and talent that its employees represent.”

Catherine Sobolewska, HR Manager for Anthony Collins Solicitors, added that disillusioned staff can be extremely damaging, so engagement is vital.

“The job market is difficult at the moment, people are scared to move on and I’m sure many organisations (such as my own firm) are experiencing lower staff turnover than ever before. This can be both positive and negative. I think there is a real danger when employees do not have as much choice about moving on. When they feel disillusioned or even just bored or lacking challenge, they are sitting tight and waiting for the market to pick up.

“A far greater threat to businesses in my view is not that they will lose staff, but that staff who are disengaged and fed up will stay and do the bare minimum. I saw a post on Facebook recently from an employee (not one from my organisation) who had posted that they spent the day at work doing nothing.

“With competition higher than ever in just about every sector, employers need an advantage which in professional services will only come from their staff. Client care needs to be well above the average to retain business and delivery needs to be exceptional. Organisations need to be thinking creatively, coming up with new products and surprising clients with the strength of their offering. Disengaged employees simply will not deliver at that level.”

Kath Hollister, Director of HR at Red Bee Media Limited had a different view though, saying HR’s influence on the business was key.

“Everything my team and I do, we do to make the organisation stronger and more commercially successful. I think sometimes all of us in the HR profession have a propensity to do stuff we ‘feel’ (or know) is good in itself – and experience tells us it probably is.

“But unless or until we can get the business leaders themselves – and all levels of management, as well as the employees – to see and be engaged in these activities as a ‘business’ rather than an ‘HR’ priority that will drive and deliver the day to day business agenda, objectives and strategy, then we in HR risk being seen as always being ‘as well as’ rather than integral.

“Professionally I think we sometimes spend too much time wondering how HR can ‘add value’ or ‘be more strategic’ rather than getting on with working with managers and leaders and together diagnosing how to become a better, faster, stronger more competitive organisation.”

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Poll results at a glance

Employee Engagement : 35%

Leadership and Development : 24%

How HR can influence the business? : 20%

Recruitment and Talent Management : 11%

Employment Law : 4%

HR Career Development : 0%