In search of ‘engagement’

Why have employees become so disillusioned?

I’ve read several articles claiming “employee engagement” is way down. Interestingly, there are different definitions of this term, but my favorite is something like, “Employees are enthusiastic and completely dedicated to their jobs, do their very best and are willing to go the extra mile.” Who wouldn’t want employees like that?

The articles discuss causes and offer potential solutions, but I’m afraid they miss the major cause of disillusionment. We don’t have to speak to a lot of people before we hear a common theme over and over again.

“Why should I kill myself? My wife and I are college grads, and we both have ‘good jobs,’ but we can’t make ends meet. We’ve gotten promotions and raises, but they don’t keep up with inflation. We live in a two-bedroom apartment with two kids, a boy and a girl, who share a bedroom. We can’t find, let alone afford, a three-bedroom apartment, but what do we do when they get older?” I went to the local chamber of commerce economic outlook breakfast. Many of our local business leaders were there. There were three main speakers. The first was an economist. He was very articulate with many charts and graphs. He very skillfully avoided, not the biggest problems, but the real causes of these problems.

For instance, the labor shortage. Yes, it’s real and there are several reasons, yet nobody wants to discuss public education. Many of the graduates can’t make change from a dollar. Nor can they speak and write grammatically the only language they know. They’re qualified to flip burgers or stock shelves at a store, but that’s not what they want to do.

A friend owns an engineering company, and he’s been trying to find qualified engineers for several years. These kids would love to make what he’s willing to pay, but they’re not qualified. Some engineers are even deficient in math skills, and his customers need correct answers and solutions. Checking everything they do can take longer than doing it himself.

The general theme of the economic outlook was to be enthusiastic despite what we’re experiencing. “We can think ourselves into a recession.” In other words, if we end up in a recession, it’s our fault.

This is how we lose touch with people.

The current consumer price index, the main indicator of the rate of inflation, is 6 percent. But whether we think of the cost of filling our gas tanks, heating our homes, our electric bills, our groceries, dining out (even fast food) and many other things people buy, they’ve all increased substantially more than 6 percent. Some have even doubled.

“Keep buying so we don’t end up in a recession” falls on deaf ears when people are running out of money. They know there’s a giant problem. They’re reminded of it several times a day. They know it can’t be solved overnight, but why not level with them? Forget the CPI. We need an index of the goods and services most people, the middle class, buy every day and every month.

It’s the first step to gaining support.

The number has to relate to what people are really experiencing to have any credibility. Then we need to talk about real and believable actions that will begin to make a difference as quickly as possible. Follow through and continuously report progress with relevant numbers. Sorry, inflation isn’t going down while prices are still going up.

Our employees will never be fully engaged until they feel they really have the power to improve their circumstances. Companies may not be able to give substantial raises, but even a small raise would show some recognition. Try negotiating with local suppliers for discounts for your employees.

They will never care about the company until they know the company cares about them.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Salem, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or

Categories: Workplace Advice