With financial concerns looming, public employees become less engaged at work. Are we in an “engagement exodus?” Savvy managers can turn things around.

Few would deny that the dramatic economic shifts of recent years have had tremendous impact on most organizations’ management practices. While most departments and agencies are rightfully concerned with the effects that current economic realities have on employee factors such as reduced headcount, decreased ability to provide quality and timely service, and reduced employee development, a greater concern has emerged: an “engagement exodus.”

Economic factors and other organizational dynamics have taken a toll on all levels of employee engagement within agencies and departments in the public sector. Due to budget reductions, an increased number of employees reaching retirement age, and myriad other factors, many public employees are left alone to “hold down the fort” previously occupied by two, three, or even four additional colleagues. Further compounding the engagement dilemma, employees within public organizations have faced multiple years of pay freezes. It’s certainly understandable that employees might be less engaged in doing their best work than in the past.

Some disengaged employees leave. Others stay. However, employees may be mentally leaving workplaces long before they exit the building for good.

Quit and Stay

A decade ago, the quickest resolution for employees disengaged in their jobs was to toss out a résumé because there was decent likelihood that it would be picked up by an interested party. However, the uncertainties inherent in today’s economy and a lack of job prospects have caused a large proportion of employees to be more cautious about trying to jump ship.

Apparent job security has significant value. Large numbers of employees remain with organizations they may have typically left in the past. This situation has created an organizational quandary—how to address the reality that an increasingly large number of employees “quit and stay” in their jobs. These are employees, as one agency manager described it, who “mentally retired two years ago and forgot to tell anyone.”

DecisionWise, a management development firm conducting engagement research, recently analyzed 9.2 million employee survey responses from organizations within both the public and for-profit sectors as part of a longitudinal engagement study. The results were interesting, but not altogether surprising. The study found lower levels of engagement among public employees than in private companies, and this trend has grown alarmingly worse in the past two years.

Five years ago, there were generally clear separations between fully engaged employees and fully disengaged employees. These separations were clearly identifiable by their favorable and unfavorable survey responses on a five-point scale. Generally speaking, a large percentage of the 2006-2007 survey responses—64 to 72 percent, depending on the organization—fell within the favorable range (a four or five on the five-point scale). A smaller percentage of responses were neutral (three on a five-point scale), with unfavorable responses (one and two) making up the minority. However, the study found that in 2010 and 2011, neutral responses replaced a large number of favorable-and even unfavorable—responses. For example, on some questions relating to employees’ level of engagement with their jobs, neutral responses accounted for nearly half of all responses—a significant departure from the 20 percent typically carried by neutral responses in the past.

The bottom line? Public employees are much more likely to quit and stay than ever before.
For many organizations, employee engagement has become the elusive Holy Grail because of the major role engagement plays in the success of an organization. Various firms, as well as numerous books, claim that they can definitively tell organizations what engages employees—an almost cookie-cutter approach to engagement. These firms and books report to have found the magic bullet that has blanket application across organizations, functions, industries, and employees. Organizations looking for the solution are quick to jump on to these claims and with little wonder as to why or how.

Numerous studies tie engagement to organization performance metrics, such as attrition, customer service, and profitability. A major step in combating the engagement exodus has simply been to acknowledge the concept of employee engagement as a true business performance indicator. This becomes particularly important when one considers some of the challenges faced by government entities. Although not unique to government, some factors, like underperformance, may be more challenging. One agency manager spoke of “shifting employees to the boneyard,” that is, moving employees to a responsibility or position where they could do the least amount of damage. While certainly not a common practice (at least one would hope!), it does illustrate a particularly common concern.

Terminating underperforming employees becomes complicated if there is fear that a vacancy left by dismissing the employee (or group of employees) will result in a vacancy that may not get filled due to hiring freezes or other practices. The something-is-better-than-nothing philosophy is, unfortunately, becoming more pervasive when it comes to terminating employees.

Quit-and-stay employees are particularly poisonous and highly contagious. These disengaged workers’ attitudes and work habits often result in customer apathy, poor quality, reduced levels of service, and decreased team performance. “Cells” of disengaged workers can create a cancerous effect on the overall health of the organization. Agencies and departments with little new blood also are deprived of fresh and innovative thinking. Disengaged employees breed disengaged organizations, which in turn further creates disengaged employees. It’s a dangerous, downward spiral. Organizations may be deeper into the engagement exodus than they suspect.

No Cookie-Cutter Approach to Engagement

Many organizations have searched for the panacea for their engagement woes. The previously mentioned study found that engagement drivers—those factors that contribute to or detract from engagement—vary greatly by industry and sector. Factors that engage a manager working in the legal department of an environmental organization may relate to one set of circumstances, while a scientist in a research organization may find engagement in a completely different set of factors. Even within similar industries, sectors, or agencies, engagement drivers can vary.

Consider study findings from within the food service industry. Engagement surveys conducted across a fast-food chain with 400-plus locations identified key factors contributing to this company’s engagement levels:
• the ability to associate with friends on the job
• the opportunity for flexible schedules
• the fact that they were given half-off the price of two lunches per week (that half-off bargain resulted in a minimal cost—about $.78 per employee each week).

Compare that to results on the same set of survey questions applied to a separate restaurant chain of approximately 110 upper-scale restaurants. Survey results indicated ability to grow, develop, and advance throughout the company was at the top of the list of its engagement drivers—factors rarely noted in the fast-food survey responses for the other chain. Additional key drivers included trust from managers and rewards from guest satisfaction. Although both restaurant chains were in the same industry, engagement factors differed significantly. Just as the cookie-cutter approach to managing engagement could not have been applied uniformly across these two companies operating within the same industry, a definitive set of factors cannot be applied universally across all public-sector employees.


The Organization’s Contribution to Engagement

Where is the source of engagement found? Organizations generally begin with the question, “How do we engage our employees?” This implies that motivation is something done to employees—something inflicted upon them—and that the executive suite has the power to pull the levers to increase engagement. This line of thinking also assumes that employees are extrinsically engaged. In other words, they are engaged through extrinsic reward (or punishment). While the overall organization does have an impact on engagement, the reality is that the top of the organization chart plays only a minor role.

Upon finding that engagement levels are slipping within the ranks, some organizational leaders set out to determine what can be done organizationally. They embark in such efforts as nationwide salary surveys to ensure compensation is fair. They look at working conditions and benefits as well as other organization-wide factors.

These ideas are not without merit. Employees are not likely to find satisfaction in a job where they don’t have basic tools for their job, where they are underpaid, or where they worry about whether they will be employed tomorrow. These areas fall within the purview of the senior management team.
Organizational leaders also must ask, “Is our direction clear?” One common organizational denominator found throughout this DecisionWise engagement study was the need for the organization to clearly establish and communicate direction. Employees who report a low level of understanding of the direction of the organization typically displayed much lower levels of engagement. Understanding the direction of the organization helps employees feel part of the organization’s overall mission and allows them to tie their own aspirations and goals to that mission.

Engage With Development

One positive side effect stemming from reduced resources can be found in the area of employee development. Rather than bemoaning reduced training budgets, some savvy organizations use added responsibilities created by the economic environment as opportunities to develop their employees. Training and development opportunities abound now, and many don’t have to involve taking a course. New methods to increase employee learning, such as communities of practice, also improve employee engagement.
However, what may engage one individual in his or her job may not engage another individual, and vice versa. These findings may not be surprising, but they present a management challenge. If engagement factors vary across sectors, organizations, departments, functions, and employees, how does an organization go about addressing the inexact art of engagement, which is needed to slow or even halt the engagement exodus? The answer lies with the manager.

A Manager’s Role in Engagement

Managers play a critical role in creating a culture of engagement. Engagement survey responses related to managers consistently show significant correlation to engagement, or lack thereof. The first role for a manager, therefore, becomes creating a culture in which employees can choose to be engaged. Many managers fall into the same trap as the organization in which they belong, spending time and effort on how to engage their employees, when the reality is that this time is better spent in creating the environment where employees can choose engagement over disengagement.

One of the most interesting correlations found in the study was the relationship between levels of engagement of a particular manager and that of his or her employees. Engaged managers typically had engaged employees. Disengaged managers had disengaged employees. While that may appear intuitive, many managers fail to put that concept into practice.

Managers must understand the key drivers of engagement within their unique team, as well as their own level of engagement. Creating and participating in a culture where employees will want to be engaged becomes a manager’s first variable in the engagement equation.

Second, great managers focus on, as Jim Collins states in his classic Good to Great, “getting the right people on the bus.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the most engaged employees are those that rise to the top spots in the recruitment pool. There are plenty of examples of strong employees who eventually become disengaged in their roles. However, the “right people” assume responsibility for their own engagement. Many organizations and managers spend a great deal of effort attempting to engage employees who have simply chosen to be disengaged. Instead, a manager must hire and develop the type of people who can engage in that culture. This is the second responsibility a manager has for engagement.

Third, don’t blow it. A manager cannot cause an employee to be engaged. However, a manager’s actions can certainly contribute quickly to an employee’s disengagement. Despite the fact that an engagement choice always resides with the employee, managers have the ability to affect disengagement faster than they can facilitate engagement. In the DecisionWise engagement study, it quickly became clear that some of the greatest contributing factors in lack of engagement during the past three years tie directly to the employee’s manager. Failing to build trust, set the vision, lead with integrity, and develop employees were among the fastest ways managers contributed to their employees’ lack of engagement. Set the environment, hire the right employees, and then don’t blow it up.

Addressing the Exodus

The potential for the engagement exodus is real, and many are feeling its effects. With external factors beating hard against today’s public organizations, it’s becoming even more critical than ever before that public managers stand up and take notice of the factors that contribute to engagement. The willingness of employees to contribute minds, hands, and hearts to their work dictates the success of the organization.

Engagement isn’t something that is “done to employees.” It doesn’t begin in the offices of agency heads and corporate officers, although there are certainly areas where the senior team can contribute. Managers, too, have the power to create an environment in which employees can choose to be engaged or disengaged. But ultimately, engagement is a choice—the employee’s choice.

Tracy Maylett, EdD, is CEO of DecisionWise, a firm specializing in employee engagement. Contact him at tmaylett@decision-wise.com. Julie Nielsen is the senior director of human resources and organizational learning at ASTD, the nonprofit international association that owns The Public Manager. Contact her at jnielsen@astd.org.

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