Engaging with, and Investing in, Your People

Posted on August 3, 2009

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I came across two interesting blog posts today on the always popular topic of employee engagement.

Mark Hirschfeld cites an article that discusses the importance of “fostering a focused workforce,” both in today’s economic client as well as with an eye toward an eventual recovery.

What I found most interesting about the article is the headline: “Even in an economic slump employees hold upper hand.” The idea that employees have the upper hand is pretty counterintuitive, given near 10% unemployment and still gloomy (if somewhat improving) economic news.

The headline makes more sense if one agrees with the points made by Jessica Lee in a post she wrote on Fistful of Talent. Jessica talks about how the current recession has brought a degree of focus and discipline that may have been lacking previously. She makes two points that can help us understand the headline:

  • In her opinion, most people who are still employed are those who are “mission critical” and “top shelf.”
  • Employees are “quieter – and more hungry,” i.e., they complain less, work harder and, overall, are more conscientious than ever before.

So – assuming one agrees with Jessica – the headline makes more sense. Employees who are surviving the current crisis may well be the superstars of an organization. Companies should be worrying about how engaged these people are with their current employer since, in theory, these are the people who will have a wide variety of opportunities available to them once hiring begins to pick up.

But the case for taking a proactive approach to employee engagement shouldn’t focus exclusively on wanting to avoid a negative outcome (i.e., employees leaving). I wrote a post back in April that discussed how the grocery chain Publix was able to grow its business despite the hostile economic conditions in large part because of the company’s focus on its employees.

Bottom line? However you define your “top shelf” people, make sure you engage with and invest in them and, whatever you do, don’t take them for granted.