Keeping the People Report
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E-Letter Volume 26, Labor Day 2012
Leigh Branham
In this Issue:

- Thoughts on Labor Day, 2012
- Book release: The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave, updated 2nd edition, August, 2012

Thoughts on Labor Day, 2012

The Workforce Disengagement Dilemma
by Leigh Branham

Since the economic collapse of 2008, business leaders and human resource professionals  have been appropriately focused on "employee engagement"--how to get employees to willingly, even gladly,  give more discretionary effort in their jobs.  Indeed, employee engagement has become the business buzzword of the last decade. 

The only problem is that, according to surveys by the likes of Gallup, Towers-Watson, and others, the percentage of fully engaged employees continues to hover at only about 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. workforce. Gallup reports that around 55 to 60 percent are "not engaged" and another 15 to 20 percent are "actively disengaged," meaning they are undermining  their managers and the morale of coworkers.

It is interesting, then, that productivity levels in the U.S. have never been higher, which can only mean that fewer workers are getting more done, but not having much fun doing it.  So, the next time you receive customer service--from a waiter, post office worker, call center representative, or store clerk, be sure to notice how engaged they are.  And if you're lucky enough to be served by a fully engaged worker, be sure to let them know how much you appreciate their extra efforts.

Many workers regard businesses efforts to keep them engaged with cynicism, viewing the "rolling out of employee engagement programs" as nothing more than attempts to get them to do more with less without receiving anything in return.  Sadly, in too many cases, this perception is justified.  Most employees want to be engaged.  Many other employees simply don't view being engaged as a desirable, or even possible, personal goal. They see work as a necessary activity, but not as a source of fulfillment.  Many have strong a work ethic, but are uninspired by their managers or their daily work environment, so they withhold much of their energy and effort.  Workforce research even reveals that a significant percentage of managers are themselves not engaged.

Yet, I continue to hear the same refrain from many business owners and leaders--"our turnover is low right now, and our workforce is stable, so we're doing pretty well."  Yes, low turnover and a stable workforce are worth celebrating, but if the workers you're keeping aren't as engaged as they could be, it's nothing to "high-five" about.

So, on this Labor Day, 2012, I offer a few suggestions for increasing workforce engagement, based on an analysis that Mark Hirschfeld and I completed of 2.1 million employee engagement surveys from 10,000 U.S. employers who entered Best Places to Work competitions in recent years.  In reviewing 200,000 verbatim survey comments, we identified six themes or factors where the most highly engaged workforces clearly out-performed the wanna-be employers:

1. Senior Leaders  who bring out the best in their employees by combining competence with compassion. Comments from companies with the highest engagement survey scores described their senior leaders as truly caring about employees as people, accessible, trustworthy, and interested more in the welfare of the company than in their own self-interest. They also tend to believe that "if we give to employees (higher pay, more training, better resources, etc. ), they will give back" instead of "if we give to employees, they will take advantage."  In spite of the fact that conventional wisdom says "people join companies and leave managers," it is more accurate to say employees are more likely to leave managers in companies where senior leaders fail to set the right example  for creating a healthy culture.

2. Direct Managers who extend the values and model the behavior of senior leaders, and take seriously their responsibilities to manage employee performance, especially when it comes to setting clear expectations, and giving frequent, honest, informal feedback.  Survey comments indicated they also tend to hold employees accountable, not avoid tough conversations, not play favorites, are generous with recognition, listen to employee's ideas, and care about them as people.

3. Teamwork: High engagement cultures described themselves  with phrases like "one big team" or as "we" cultures, as opposed to "us vs. them" cultures where leaders and managers are isolated from the average worker and cross-functional conflict or "siloing" rules the day.

4. Career Growth and Learning:  Leaders and managers set a high priority on getting employees in the jobs that match their strengths and interests and keeping them on a learning curve, realizing that younger employees especially don't expect lifetime employment, but they do expect lifetime employability.  This means they will stay and stay engaged as long as they are learning and sharpening their skills.  High-scoring cultures also send a strong message to managers that talent-hoarding and blocking lateral moves are not acceptable.

5. Valuing Workers:  Yes, this generally means paying more than other employers, but it also means thanking employees for their contributions, providing the right tools and resources, seeking their ideas and opinions, keeping them informed, and confronting non-performers (knowing that  tolerating non-performance sends a signal that devalues good performers).

6.  Personal Well Being:  Employees tend to give more effort when leaders and managers don't see them as nonrenewable resources to be used up and tossed aside. The best employers take care to maintain staffing levels so that customers are well-served and employees are not overstressed and overworked to the point of burnout.  They also tend to allow more flexibility in work schedules and provide a variety of benefits that may not be found at other companies.
Of course, this sounds like the perfect employer, and we know there is no such thing.  But the employers that strive to build cultures with these attributes will show workers that engagement is possible and will win the war for talent as the economy improves.

I'd like to hear your thoughts--why do so many companies have so many disengaged workers?

Go to our blog at to weigh in.


2nd Edition, The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave

Updated based on new post-exit third-party surveys from more than 1,000 respondents


The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave:
How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before It's Too Late,

by Leigh Branham (AMACOM Books, 2012).


Re-Engage: How America’s Best Places to Work Inspire Extra Effort in Extraordinary Times,
by Leigh Branham and Mark Hirschfeld (McGraw-Hill, 2010).

Keeping the People, Inc. helps organizations link employer-of-choice strategies with business strategies, conduct third-party post-exit interviews and surveys, conduct engagement surveys with current employees, and provides the management coaching and training needed to implement those strategies.

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Keeping the People Report

For information about any of the following offerings:

  • Employee Engagement Surveying and Reporting
  • Management Training in Employee Engagement
  • Self-Engagement Workshops for Employees
  • Exit Surveying and Reporting
  • Keynotes and Presentations on Employee Engagement and Retention

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Copyright, Keeping the People, Inc. 2012. Keeping the People Report is written and edited by Leigh Branham.