Engaging Employees in a Downturn

Downturn or upturn, an engaged workforce is always a critical lead indicator to productivity and the bottom line. In a downturn however, it’s critical for the continued viability, productivity and success of the organization.
A downturn is a time of focusing on reviewing costs, improving efficiencies, product and service innovation and finding new ways of generating income.  Staff retention is critical and should not be taken for granted. Employees should want to stay with their company not because of the absence of a “pull factor” but because of the absence of a “push factor” and the existence of the happy “stay factor.”

The pull factor refers to the softening of the labour market within certain staff categories and industries with redundancies, resulting in less demand for staffing by other companies. The push factor refers to the times when employers are pushing their employees out the door for all the reasons employees cite for resigning.

Janice Andrews from the Nevada Business reported on the 10th February 2009 that Watson Wyatt, a leading consulting firm in their 2008/2009 WorkUSA Report found that companies benefit from a 26% higher employee productivity, lower turnover risk, and are more likely to attract top talent when their employees are engaged. The survey found that highly engaged employees are twice as likely to be top performers with 20% less absent days when compared to the less engaged employee population.

The term “engageable moments” was noted from the report recommendations and I absolutely love it. How do we identify an “engageable moment”? I often see many of these moments but line managers are sometimes so caught up in day to day operations, that these high return moments are not identified much less capitalized on. It is about seeing beyond our nose, fighting myopia and seeing the next couple of chess moves that may take place if we make a certain decision.

The survey data shows that engagement starts off high with new employees but often decreases by over 9% within the first year of employment. Hence, there are numerous opportunities in the first year to counteract that decline. It is important to note as well that at the interviewing stage, the interviewer should not paint an unrealistic picture of the job or the company, since this image may soon be thwarted based on the new recruit’s real experience. Honesty is the best policy?.

The organization is encouraged to have a comprehensive on boarding and orientation programme with specific on the job training and not rely on training by osmosis. The new recruit should be fully aware of their scorecards or deliverables and be given frequent feedback on their progress. Apart from the policies, procedures, work deliverables, the new recruit also needs to get a feel for the company’s cultures with the norms and values. This may include simple bits of advice like where to park, where to eat lunch, always say “good morning or good afternoon”, or always acknowledge someone when passing them in the corridor or in the washroom etc. These bits of advice are necessary when working with multiple generations. A buddy system might be a good idea to assist in the cultural immersion that comes from passing ideas on to new employees.

Employees always appreciate involvement and meaningful communication. It is advisable in a downturn, to explain the company’s plan, direction and to seek ideas from the staff using a bottom up approach. Crises provide the leadership with unique opportunities to assert themselves and further build their brand equity thereby increasing the commitment from the workforce.

The company may also seek to provide un-intimidating ways to solicit feedback from staff on burning issues, questions, assumptions and or complaints with the intention of responding and dispelling conspiracy theories and setting records straight.

If an organization experienced redundancies, there might be a great deal of survivor’s guilt to address. In the absence of redundancies, some companies would have implemented a recruitment freeze; this may increase the workloads of the existing staff. An idea maybe to offer time off during non-peak periods to those employees who have increased work loads. Companies should explore leveraging workplace flexibility options as a non-cash way to illustrate staff appreciation.

As minimal as it may be, reserve funds to serve as bonuses and or incentives or personalized gifts for innovative type rewards. A programme may also be developed to solicit ides on cost savings and or income generating from staff and reward them for implemented ideas. This is a time where business maybe a bit slow so organizations should use the down time to re-group, re-tool and or re-train.

When implementing programmes aimed at building employee engagement, we should focus our efforts on the tier of employees below the fully engaged tier. The fully engaged ones are already working to their maximum capacity, we need to concentrate on gently nudging the fence sitters. Partially engaged and disengaged employees are always a threat to the fully engaged ones in terms of limiting top performance. An organization works as a team, with interdependencies built into it, hence poor or mediocre performance flows through the channels.

Janice Andrews from the Nevada Business Magazine quoted Ilene Gochman at Watson Wyatt as saying: “Improving employee engagement will help drive business results in the long run by improving commitment to corporate goals and generating exceptional individual performance and productivity”.

Employee engagement is such a compound concept and the prescription to achieve it is different for different companies, but I contend that the bones of an engagement strategy are built on common values / ideas of equity, honesty, openness, transparency, integrity, growth, development, respect, recognition, appreciation, involvement and communication. The company can then dissect their organization into various relevant demographics to help craft the prescription that will yield positive engagement results.

Denise Ali

Interview with Tom Crane

crane-tom-cranePodcast interview with Tom Crane based on the speech he gave to the Jamaica Employer’s Federation Convention in April 2009.  Tom is the author of “The Heart of Coaching,”  and both his book and work are detailed on his website — www.craneconsulting.com

Length of time:  34 minutes



Leadership and Culture Change

hands-up-diverseI am a happy subscriber to a newsletter from Peter Koestenbaum, and in a recent message he had this to say about leadership that I thought was quite profound:


A good executive can precisely diagnose the needs of an organization. Whatever the diagnosis, the solution universally requires leadership. It demands that a critical mass of the organization think and act as leaders do. Leadership is the principal action tool for implementing organizational objectives.

One can ask a company, “What is your problem?” One gets many answers, many different diagnoses, many different problems. Everyone — individuals as well as organizations — has reasons: the need for more decentralization, for flatter organizations, for more product and service quality, for higher productivity, for greater speed and quality decision making. Other reasons: the shifting markets, international competition; the need for continuous innovation, for more creativity, for more personal responsibility, for individual autonomy, for more teamwork, for better strategy, and the wish to correct sluggish profits and planning errors and to temper excessive politics. The concerns are multiple, but the solution is always the same: release, among the members of your team, the power for leadership and creativity, for courage and character.

To teach leadership greatness is to help others learn how to think and act as leaders do. It means to challenge their will, to release people’s latent greatness and to empower teams for extraordinary accomplishments.

His website can be found by clicking here: Philosophy in Business.


CaribHRForum Survey

CaribHRForum has just opened up its new survey on the possibility of conducting virtual HR conferences across the region.

I’d like to invite you to complete the following survey to help the planners and decision-makers decide whether or not a virtual conference would be something valuable to offer in 2009.

The survey includes 6 questions, all related to a new technology that is allowing conferences and their content to be offered remotely via the internet. At the end of the survey, you’ll find a link to an interesting example of a conference that is being offered not only live, but over the internet in stored audios and video.

I believe that offering virtual conferences are the only way for us in the region to overcome the obstacle of US$500+ fares. Not only are they a way for us to stay connected, but they are also a good alternative in these recessionary times.

This survey is only about regional HR conferences – please bear that in mind.

Incidentally, there are three regional HR conferences planned for the fall of 2009 – a first.

Click here to be taken to the survey:



HR Business Partnering

trustWhen we speak of HR Business Partnering, sometimes the views and understanding
of this term are varied, yet all are undeniably related to the reasons for its adoption to begin with.

We have also adopted this term at Guardian Holdings and we would like to think
it is more than just a name change to us.  The catalyst for this change began
with senior management asking the question of how best we can re-structure HR to
ensure it delivers maximum value to the business. If HR were to answer this value,
we would have to assume we know what the business thinks “maximum value” looks like.

We embarked on engaging an external third party to conduct some
interviews with the businesses that HR supports to determine, what they want
from HR, what HR is good at and what HR can improve upon in a nutshell. The
third party was a necessary part of this process to improve the honesty of the
feedback as much as possible as compared to if HR asked the questions about

We analyzed all the feedback and proceeded to engage in a marathon of
discussions about a range of issues. We know from all our research on HR
Business partnering about having a centre of expertise (a la David Ulrich,) but we had to
ask if we really needed that high level centre of expertise based on our size
and current requirements to justify the salaries and benefits it would take to house
specialist skills internally on a day to day basis.

We decided to adopt a developmental approach to this idea of specialist
skills. We have not recruited any high level expert skill, but we are building
the skills of our current team members across functional HR areas. Our HR
Officers are on a long term rotation programme to build and assess skills across
Performance Management, Learning and Development and Employee Relations.

The organization will not be highly dependent on one person for service and
guidance, hence decreasing the company’s vulnerability should retention be less
than perfect. In effect, we are developing our HR expertise parallel to the
organization’s need for it on a continuous basis. For the spurts of expert
advice requests, we can always seek the same at critical times.

Another key area we reviewed was our Shared Service Function, we asked what
else can we hive off from the Business Unit HR team and move to the Shared
Services area. This was a critical component aimed at providing more time for
the HR Officers at the Business Unit to engage in more value adding work as
compared to spending large chunks of time on transactional routine work.

We reviewed a number of processes and moved a range of activities to the Shared
Service, ensuring all the way that the process was seamless and all involved
the same understanding.  However, having said that, this continues to be a
work in progress. It is amazing how things get confused along the way where
steps in a process take on a life of their own and don’t even resemble the steps
in the detailed documentation. The lesson here is “maintenance is critical”
while we look for improvements.

The support from the line on this “Business Partnering” concept has been crucial. The
mere fact that we started the process by asking the line for input and advice
augured well for us at the implementation stage. When it comes to the line
accepting responsibility for making people decisions that in the past rested
withHR is another matter. We constantly re-iterated our goal, which was to better
enable the line to manage their people and by extension the company. We emphasized that “HR is not the uniform police or the manager of time off, HR is about supporting the line and the business in managing and optimizing the human capital.”

A huge change is required by the line, a change that surrounds how they perceive
their job and their role in people management. In the distant past, all people
management issues were referred to HR, hence people issues were not seen as part
of the line’s role.

The integration of this role in the manager’s role now has had its challenges. In our experience, the line refers to HR or not refers to HR when it
is convenient for them to do so. It is if “bad” news for the employee, the
line may say, “HR said so!”, when really the line receives advice from HR
clearly outlining consequences of different decisions but the final decision if
for the line to make.

We have lots of work to do where this is concerned. HR needs the constant
support the senior management team on reinforcing and driving this new
accountability for people management. We have included people management metrics
on the line’s scorecard as a systematic way to hold them accountable for
these issues.

Our current challenge is having the line sign any disciplinary
correspondence to the employee. The line wants performance to improve but not in
a hurry to communicate the challenging areas and areas on poor performance to
the employee especially in writing. In conclusion, this is another area that is
considered work in progress that requires much care and attention.

We discussed:
•    deciding to let our internal potential HR specialists go through their own
metamorphosis parallel to the organization’s need for expert skills with an
emphasis on retention,
•    refining the role of the Business Unit HR team members and transferring
transactional work to our Shared Service ensuring a seamless relationship
•    the need to have support from the line on embracing their people
management role.
Consistent with all the points noted, is the importance of role clarification and
understanding of duties, deliverables and expectations from all

I trust the above simplified highlights which marks our journey along the HR
Business Partnering path was useful.

Denise Ali