We Should Not Outsourcing Engagement

employee_engagementThe popular as well as business media jumped on a recent story about a man in the US that unbeknownst to his employer outsourced his job to a company in China.  Apparently, the senior level programmer worked for a US company, located a firm in China with the requisite skills to perform his day-to-day work, hired their staff for approximately 20 percent of his salary, and gave them access to his VPN connection to make it appear he was working normal hours.  Most commentators that wrote about the man alternated between horror over the duplicity and smug admiration with his innovative spirit. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/9806921/Computer-programmer-outsourced-job-to-China.html)

Although this incident received national attention, most of us have heard stories of people finding innovative ways to make more money or get out of work at their current job.  A few recent examples that clients relayed to me include:

  • a manager that reported to work each morning for a few minutes before leaving to attend  important, off-site “meetings” that turned out to be at his electronics business he ran during business hours;
  • a highly paid project manager who overestimated the time that projects would take so he could bring in his own laptop to do freelance programming work; and
  • an office where the staff delayed internal work requests so that they could spend their days developing online characters for gamers that aspiring players would rather buy than develop on their own.

As ever leader knows, we all struggle with balancing doing the easy thing or our own thing with doing the right thing.

Although we could focus on the dishonesty and duplicity of each of these examples, the point that seems to be missing from our discussions of people finding creative ways to get out of work or make more money relates to engagement.  Put simply, if we fail to engage our employees, something else will.

As human beings, we seek to have connections and possess a sense of belonging.  This is one of the reasons we take pride in being from a specific community, supporting a specific sports team, voting for a specific political party or candidate, subscribing to a specific set of religious belief, and identifying with a specific profession.  We develop a sense of attachment or linkage that solidifies who we are.  As a result, our identity depends on defining ourselves with mental images of what we are “connected with” and the nature of that interaction.  Most of us spend around half of our waking time working, so the interaction we have at work plays a comparatively large role in defining who we are.  Moreover, the impact of negative interaction is much greater due to the regular nature of the interaction.  The combination of the need to define ourselves and the degree of interaction is one of the primary reasons why a good supervisor is critical to employee satisfaction, happiness, and engagement.  A good supervisor understands an individual’s need to define him or herself, monitors the status of that definition through interaction, and attempts to keep that image where it needs to be to produce the best results possible.

In distant leadership, we need to develop new skills and tools to complete these essential duties.  The need for engagement does not vanish as offices decentralize.  If anything, as leaders we have to work harder to ensure engagement.  In our next post, we will discuss some innovative ways to do that.

The One that Got Away

Most of us have lost a key employee before.  I know that I have lost more than a few over the years and it is a regret that stays with you.  As I consider where they ended up in their careers, I realize the difference they could have made in my organization. Good employees leave for a variety of reasons: better opportunities, working conditions, or simply for new challenges.   The hard part of keeping the right people is making sure that we consistently and comprehensively address our risk factors.

I recently worked with an organization that affectionately referred to themselves as a “world class turnover shop.”  They possessed a strong recruitment profile in the marketplace, identified the most knowledgeable and interested candidates with a highly effective and structured screening process, and utilized an interactive and fun on-boarding process.  None of these practices correlated with their unreasonable turnover numbers and many of their practices would be the envy of most organizations.  As one recent hire summarized the hiring experience: “this place really cares about who works here and if they reach their full potential.”  Another employee with less than a year of experience stated “this place just might fulfill my dreams.” Since 40 percent of the most talented, high performers leave in three years, I asked: “What happens after these talented team members join the organization?”

The answer most often conveyed was “nothing happens.”  Among those employees with three to five years of experience, the consensus seemed to be that “the organization is great at brining you in and using you up.”  As I pondered the meaning of the answer, I realized a few important lessons.


As leaders, we tend to focus on part of a process or an area of concern.  In other words, we lose focus of the big picture as we expend all of our energy on fixing a problem.  When I shared the comments from the above with leaders, they lamented that problems still existed with talent management.  In the past, the organization had issues with recruiting the “best and brightest” and shifted its resources to rectifying the issue.  While focusing on recruitment, the organization began to neglect the longer-term employees.

Whole Package

High performing employees expect and demand the whole package from their employers.  By the whole package, I am referring to an efficient recruitment process, strong on-boarding, fulfilling assignments, recognition for performance, opportunities for growth and development, superior engagement, strong leadership, and chance for advancement.  In the past, an organization might have been able to flourish with having a comparative advantage in one or two talent areas.  Today, the successful standard incorporates all facets of talent management.  A September 2012 survey by HCS found that 72 percent of CEOs consider talent management critical to their organization’s success, but only 20 percent feel that they have a comprehensive offering.  The study collected employee opinions in the same organizations and employees agreed with leadership.


Engagement is dynamic and fluctuates over time.  Regardless of how hard an organization works to improve engagement, maintaining that level requires constant attention and effort.  As I have eluded to before, building engagement is like climbing a mountain: it takes time and demands a lot of the climber.  While, losing engagement mirrors tumbling down the mountain since losing engagement with your employees occurs much easier than building it.

Retention Readiness

The economic downturn continues to lull most organizations into a mode of operating predicated on labor supply exceeding demand.  Repeatedly, I hear leaders express that regardless of their actions, numerous people need work and would accept any conditions to gain employment.  Re-enforcement of this behavior occurs every time someone leaves and a large applicant pool provides a replacement.  As the downturn drags on, more organizations continue to change their mentality as well as practices.

This approach functions well for a limited time if conditions match organizational needs.  If an organization loses employees that are low performers and not needed to sustain current production levels, then self-initiated turnover provides a welcome alternative to reductions in force.  The observable as well as unobservable negative impact relates to culture and practice.  An organization that feels that qualified labor is limitless begins to dismantle programs that support retention.  As programs fade away, the culture starts to change.

More importantly, as culture and practice changes, the less prepared the organization will be for a more robust labor market.  This is especially true when attempting to attract and retain high performance and high talent employees that occupy a small portion of the current supply.  These critical employees that represent 20 percent of your workforce and accomplish 80 percent of you results leave your organization or others for a variety of simple reasons:

  • More pay
  • Better career progression
  • Better working conditions
  • More professional development
  • Better work-life balance
  • Improved relationships

Regardless of how your organization has responded to the downturn, it is important to know you retention readiness.   Some key questions to assess your readiness include:

  • How competitive, equitable, and fair is your compensation system?
  • Do current jobs align well with the skills and ambitions of the workforce?
  • How committed is your organization to employee engagement?
  • How strong are the social relationships in the organization?
  • How well designed and effective is your recruitment and selection process?
  • How effectively do you deal with low performers?
  • How effectively do you evaluate the match of a hire in the first 90 to 120 days?
  • What is the status of work-life balance?
  • How well are managers trained to support, recognize, and reward employees?
  • Do you have a positive work environment without harassment, abuse, and discrimination?

Cost of Doing and Not Doing Maintenance

Preventive maintenance is something that many of us talk about, but never seem to get around to completing.  Basically, preventive maintenance is conducted to keep equipment or a facility working efficiently and extend its operating lifespan.  The primary goal of maintenance is to reduce the chances of costly failure of equipment or major repairs to structures by incrementally investing in maintaining it at a minimal standard.

The most common place we deal with preventive maintenance on a regular basis is at our home.  If you are like I am, you may allow projects to build up over time.  It can be the money or time that becomes the justification for waiting until later.  However, the problem with not addressing little things over time is that little things become big problems.  A number of years ago, I had a small leak in the roofing above the sun room.  It really did not seem to be much and I told myself that I would figure out how to seal it the next weekend.  Not surprisingly, after a few weeks of forgetting about it, the small leak ended up becoming a big leak that became noticeable to anyone sitting on the couch from the nice stain that discolored the white ceiling.  Although it was humorous to tell people it looks like the dog had an accident on the ceiling, I was frustrated that I had let the small issue become a big problem.

Recently, I have been asked a lot about the recession’s impact of anxiety and fatigue present among the workforce.  Obviously, it is extremely difficult for those that are looking for work, but the downturn has also taken its toll on those with jobs.  Although the hopelessness of the last few years seems to be waning among employees as the economy slowly improves, there is still a pronounced melancholy among many workers related to future uncertainty, eroding standard of living, and more workplace demands.

As leaders, we have to ask ourselves daily: what can we do to improve the situation for those employees that have stuck with us during these tough economic times?  Several groups that I have worked in the last few weeks have debated the best approach to adopt.  Some argued that praise or reward can wait until the downturn is over and resources are really available, while the other opinion centered on doing small things now.  As l listened to both viewpoints and identified the merits of each, the two positions reminded me of the importance of preventive maintenance.  The small leak will become large over time if it is not addressed.   For most of us, we really cannot afford the loss of productivity and results that go along with real trouble.  With that in mind, there are three things that we call can do now that is effective and preventive:

  • Acknowledge role
  • Be emphatic
  • Discuss future

Acknowledge Role

As we discussed in the last post, recognition is a big part of what makes someone feel respected and important.  The same is true for when we recognize someone for their contribution.  Although in these times it may be easy to justify not providing recognition due to the value of just having a job, we have to go beyond a simple cost-benefit way of thinking and bigger picture of overall, long term productivity.   It is imperative that we thank those that are working harder for staying the course during these turbulent times.

Be Emphatic

As we all have to work harder and experience the associated stress, it can be hard to take the time to be emphatic to those around us.  Although not easy, it is a very powerful tool to put yourself into “someone else’s shoes.”  Ugo Uche on his blog for Psychology Today puts it very well: “The bottom line is, there is courage gained in understanding others.”  By going outside of our own frame of reference and trying to understand someone else’s point of view adds clarity of thoughts and feelings, but more importantly, shows that we care about those around us.

Discuss Future

We all want to have hope, especially in bad times.  A common metaphor that I have heard from a few employees in different organizations is that the current situation is like being in a dark tunnel on train tracks and hoping to find the light at the end.   A more humorous response that I have heard lately that come from managers during these “tunnel” discussions is that it is hard to tell if the light is the end of the tunnel or the oncoming train.  Employees need to be reassured that things will improve in the future at some point and through this hope stronger bonds are developed.

A small investment can make a big difference in the future of your organization.  By not doing these things, the future is very likely to be less productive than the present and create a hangover of sorts after the economic downturn.