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Employee Engagement and Recruitment: “People join organisations, but they leave managers”

Employee Engagement and Recruitment: “People join organisations, but they leave managers”

I had the good fortune to listen to Nita Clarke speak at the recent CIPD West of England Branch meeting and AGM. She is Director of the Involvement Participation Association (IPA), Co-chair of the national Engage for Success Employee Engagement Task Force and Vice President (employee relations) CIPD. She is one of the UK’s leading experts on employee engagement and worked on the 2008 MacLeod Report commissioned by government to look at what the CBI have recently said is the number one current issue for their members: employee engagement.

But what is employee engagement? Here’s a straightforward definition from Professor John Storey: “A set of positive attitudes and behaviours enabling high job performance of a kind which are in tune with the organisation’s mission.”

I found Nita Clarke an inspirational speaker. As well as knowing her subject matter absolutely, her passion about the subject was evident.  She covered such a wealth of material in, I’ve no idea even how long it was, and I think that is a huge compliment as I didn’t look at my watch or switch off for even a second of her talk! Among the very many nuggets of wisdom she shared, she said in passing “and of course people join organisations but they leave managers.”

When she said that, it really struck home with me. It seemed startlingly true, but I have been grappling to try and understand why and how that is.

When a person joins a company, what do they join? A job description? An employer brand? A good reputation? A promise of career development? In terms of employee engagement you could argue that at the point a person joins a company they are absolutely engaged. Maybe it is the zenith of engagement in the employment relationship. Most people start a job at their most enthused and keen to prove themselves of value. If people are so engaged at the point they take a job, does this part of the process need improving? In listening to Nita Clark and reading the report since, I have certainly felt that their findings do have implications for recruitment. In fact I think proper, honest engagement at this stage will give a greater chance for the employee to stay in their role in the future.

In her talk Nita Clarke laid out a framework for employee engagement, saying it had 4 elements.

1)      Strategic Narrative: Nita told us that every company needs a story; an explanation of where they are from and where they are going. This tells people what they are part of and helps them understand what they are joining.  In my experience, perhaps the recruitment interview is sometimes one of the only times people hear this information, but if you are not even giving it at the recruitment stage then it is certainly a missed opportunity to engage your potential employee. I would also argue that it needs reinforcing and the first time it should be reinforced is at Induction.  Induction is a key point in the recruitment process and presenting a picture of the organisation that the new employee received during the recruitment process will be very reassuring start.

2)      Engaging Managers: Nita explained this was about making sure managers could motivate their team and explain what success looks like so people know what they are aiming for. I find that usually line managers are involved in recruitment, so this process can start during selection. The more directly and accurately you have managed to translate your definition of success into your selection process the more likely you are to end up with the cultural fit and skills you need. This coherence can only come from a manager who is engaged. Lack of clarity, understanding or disinterest will result in bad data being fed into the selection process. Bad data in, bad decision out.

3)      Integrity: Nita questioned: If an organisation is saying it is innovative, then where is the proof? A company’s values should be aligned with the way people behave. It seems to me, the joy of the recruitment process for the cavalier is that the poor prospective employee has only your word for the values of the organisation and compared to actually being an employee, relatively few cues on whether that is reality. People cannot feel engaged if they feel there is a mismatch between espoused and actual values. To me this point translates into being authentic in your recruitment process. If you know your core values, be truthful about them. Don’t pretend innovation is important if in fact adherence to the current system is what you want. Don’t pretend you are a buzzy and lively place to work, if in fact it is a bookish and calm atmosphere. Clearly there is nothing wrong with any of these, it is simply that in honestly identifying what your organisation is like, rather than what you want it to be or think it should be, you are more likely to find a person who is a genuine fit.

4)      Employee Voice: Nita gave some inspiring examples of organisations that changed their fortunes by listening to their employees. She cited BAe Systems as profoundly shifting their culture by letting go of control and allowing people have a say in how they do their jobs. In recognising their employees’ expertise they hugely improved their productivity. Employee Voice is one area I think could be more emphasised in the recruitment process and this chimes with what some commentators have identified as being a cultural shift with the Millennial and Y generations. Nita Clarke’s view was that work has become more transactional but that we expect more from it. We expect to be fulfilled and happy. People want to know what they will be getting. I have always believed strongly that a good recruitment process is two way; a proper courtship. I think the work that Nita Clarke and David McLeod have done lend weight to that. A recruitment process should allow an opportunity for the employee to gain an open and clear insight into the organisation and the job. It should also make sure managers are prepared to discuss the opportunity in terms of benefits to the applicant. This reframing and further shifting of the relationship towards a more equal one will however only work if the organisation is prepared to continue in this way once the employee has joined.

So I think that in engaging in an honest, open, coherent and real way at the recruitment stage of the employment relationship then you have a much better chance of any enthusiasm on the part of the new employee being real, rather than simply based on newness. Starting a new job is exciting and nerve-wracking. When we join we look to see if the picture we gained in the recruitment process matches up to reality. I think using the principles of employee engagement is a vehicle to help ensure it does.

As for the idea of people “leaving managers”; you could interpret a decision to leave as the ultimate expression of disengagement.  The manager is quite naturally a focus, as a manager is the manifestation of the hierarchy. They are a key relationship in making sure an employee is engaged, a mouthpiece for the strategic narrative, the one shaping what success looks like, whose behaviour needs to line up with the organisation’s values and who really needs to be hearing your voice.  Neglect of engagement, with all its implications for properly valuing employees contributions will have the outcome of staff turnover. Indeed the 2008 MacLeod report quotes a Gallup survey of 23,901 businesses and found that those with engagement scores in the bottom quartile averaged 31-51% more employee turnover.

The statement “employees join organisations but they leave managers” is of course a generalisation and there is a limit to how much they can stand scrutiny, but it illustrates the point that recruitment often starts with someone leaving. In a company where there is high employee engagement then recruitment forms part of a whole that is owned by many stakeholders, be they managers, team members, HR or external consultant. It is this interconnectedness, coherence, mutual advocacy and respect that helps breed a successful organisation and a recruitment process that works, not just for the now, but for the future too.

Oh, and just in case you ever thought this was “fluffy” Gallup also found that those businesses with engagement scores in the top quartile also averaged 12% higher customer advocacy, 18% higher productivity and 12% higher profitability.

There is a wealth of very useful and free information available at www.engage4success.org. Worth the time of anyone who is in business, whether big or small.

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About The Author
Matt Goulette, Director of Work Tree Consulting Ltd.


  • By Adhocrat 10 Sep 2015

    So, the meaning is “but they leave because of their managers”, not “but they leave as managers”? That does make more sense…

    • By Matt Goulette 01 Oct 2015

      Correct. It’s an advisory about looking where the real threat to losing employees lies.

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