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Cure-alls for Lagging Employee Engagement: Experts Share their Secrets

By Elisabeth Anderson on May 17, 20103 Comments

Employee engagement program feeling a bit tired?  Participation rates remaining flat?  Same people showing up to volunteer? You’re not alone.  As winning as employee engagement may be as a concept, implementation has its hurdles and challenges.  The rewards are numerous as recent research continues to suggest, but program managers will attest that communications, senior leadership buy-in, participation rates and other issues can hinder success.  Through a number of recent speaking engagements and Changing Our World-hosted events, our Corporate Social Engagement Team has facilitated conversations among practitioners to discover and affirm how managers are using various strategies to address the current realities that ail employee engagement.

We offer a set of prescriptions based on the sanguine advice of seasoned professionals who have joined us in these dynamic dialogues.  We collectively thank our friends and colleagues for their input and insights.

Ailment #1: Employee paralysis

Consider it one of the great ironies of doing business in a recession: companies seek to leverage employee engagement to support their images as good corporate citizens now more than ever, and yet employees fear the consequences of appearing to have “free time” to volunteer.  Employee paralysis, i.e. inability to leave their chairs and go volunteer, is perhaps the biggest current barrier to boosting employee engagement program participation.  What’s more, there is the compounding factor of mounting workloads; as fewer employees are taking on more work, free time in and of itself is becoming a rarefied thing.

According to the LBG Associates report Motivating Volunteering in Tough Times,

“…what resonated with employees in 2007, or even last year, will not necessarily work today.  The downturn has wrought serious changes in business, and it has taken a toll on employee trust and morale.  Anxious, cynical, or depressed employees need much more support, reassurance, and information than they did in the past in order to feel comfortable participating in company-sponsored volunteering efforts.”

Our contacts have echoed this, citing employment fears, low leadership participation rates and employee time constraints as major challenges they currently face.

Rx: Physical therapy

The only way to overcome the paralysis problem is to physically get employees moving – get them to volunteer, and to see that the company values their contribution.  To do that, practitioners agreed that increasing senior management involvement is critical.  According to the 2010 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Study, half of all corporate senior management teams don’t define their expectations for volunteer initiatives.  This has to change.  Most participants concurred that senior leadership needs to set the pace for employee engagement; make it clear what the company stands for, affirm that the culture is pro-volunteering, and show that they mean it by participating themselves.

Ailment #2: Email overload disorder

Volunteer managers and their employees are not seeing eye to eye when it comes to effective communications.  According to the LBG report, while the top three ways employees say they find out about company-sponsored volunteering events are the same as the top three managers cite – the top two are in reverse order; managers mark word of mouth as #1, but it comes in second for employees, who ranked email higher.  (Both rate company intranet #3, followed distantly by bulletin board postings and posters).

But just because employees cite email as the way they hear about volunteer opportunities most, doesn’t mean they necessarily like it.  Indeed, most of the practitioners we’ve encountered note that there is a lot of email fatigue being felt in their organizations.  Cutting through the (email-driven) communication clutter isn’t easy, but some creative ideas can go a long way.

Rx: Strategic communication

The top suggestion we can offer involves creating customized, culture-specific communications.  This could mean getting granular and even identifying the sub-cultures within an organization; does one office thrive on email communiqués, while another is much more apt to pay attention to updates given in a town hall meeting?  Do your 20-something employees spend their days on an intranet-based social media platform, whereas older employees prefer an internal digital bulletin board?  Take note, and craft messages accordingly.  If email is your go-to, track open rates to see who’s reading what, and tweak your approach accordingly.  Creating variety in who communications generate from can reap benefits as well; perhaps the email intending to boost participation can come from the CEO, and a thank you email later can come from someone else, e.g. the Executive Director of the nonprofit where services were provided.

Equally important is streamlining communications – both before and after events.  One idea we’ve heard, which found great success, involved combining a recent event recap, participant recognition, and leadership team acknowledgment into one piece of correspondence.

Leveraging organizational relationships is critical to communications success as well.  Capitalize on those who are passionate, and make them word-of-mouth champions, spreading key positive messages and building awareness of your program offerings.  Another tactic to try is employee-driven communications; have a volunteer coordinator and committee in each office, and make them tailor communications to meet the needs of their locations.  Another idea: partnering with corporate communication teams, who identify team members to help specifically with employee engagement-focused communications; another: attending team captain/management meetings to build awareness and gain cheerleaders who can communicate opportunities back to their team members.

In the end, the prescription is really one of knowing your audience.  How do employees want to hear from you?  Consider the answer carefully before you hit Send on that next email!

Ailment #3: Program stiffness

According to the Deloitte study more companies track progress against business goals, as it relates to contributing employee volunteer time, on its impact on employee morale than on any other impact (51%).  Impact on employee retention and positive media coverage rated strongly too, with about a third of respondents citing each of those.

Bottom line: employee engagement is intended to lift the brand, to internal and external stakeholders alike.   Communicate all you want (ahem, within a strategic context) but you won’t build positive perception (or employee participation rates) with stiff, stale – or just as bad, poorly managed – programming.

Rx: Partial or full rejuvenation

The experts agreed that the cure for a stiff program was partial or complete rejuvenation.  Some were in the throes of a total infrastructural overhaul; others were attacking specific weak links and replacing them with more effective elements around programming, budgeting, staffing, communications, or some combination thereof.

The best way to see results?  Be your own consulting firm (or, if resources are there, hire consultants).  One approach is completing a full internal assessment; have the leadership team help develop questions regarding the best structure, management, and communications platform for the program, and utilize those in an online employee survey.  Those same leaders should be invited to hear research findings and recommendations, a way to further spur their interest in the program.

For those looking for lighter-touch enhancements, consider developing tactics to empower business units and locations to make their own definitions of success and metrics to track against them; it’s a great way to enhance management effectiveness and efficiency, and to potentially buttress participation by giving some authority to individual locations.

Another idea involves putting your grantee partners to work for you.  Ask them to generate ideas for building volunteer opportunities into the partnership, and to help define how those opportunities help deepen the impact of said partnership.  Brainstorm with them the best way to communicate activities and their strategic context, both internally and externally.

* * *

When all is said and done, whether your program needs a little nip/tuck or major surgery, our experts agree on three Ps:

  • Plan (strategically);
  • Position (with compelling and audience-appropriate messaging); and
  • Polish (refresh and revive) your program for maximum success.

Doctor’s orders.
What expert advice do you have to share around making your employee engagement program great?  Let the author know at

Elisabeth Anderson is a Senior Director of the Corporate Social Engagement team at Changing Our World, a leading philanthropic services firm advising corporations, nonprofits and individuals on effective philanthropy.

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  • mataj says:

    Why waste time supporting and reassure anxious, cynical, or depressed employees? With unemployment high and rising, it’s far easier to fire them, and hire fresh ones.

  • [...] Experts Share their Secrets Leave a comment » Cure-alls for Lagging Employee Engagement: Experts Share their Secrets By Elisabeth Anderson on May 17, 2010No Comment Employee engagement program feeling a bit tired? Participation rates remaining flat? … [...]

  • Robert here from VolunteerMatch. Interesting article from Elisabeth. Thanks for sharing. Within the metaphor of the piece, I think Ailment #3, program stiffness, is actually the disease giving rise to all other symptoms.

    A program that simply isn’t very inspiring to employees is already too hamstrung to easily motivate your team, and likely any communications around a boring or uninspiring program will be ignored as well.
    At VolunteerMatch we’ve had success helping companies develop fresh programs that align overall giving with volunteer strategies — with great outcomes at many of our clients. The key has been for companies to build their programs around employee choice and a true diversity of volunteer roles.

    Volunteering overall is on the rise, and we know that employees aren’t exempt from caring about where they live and work. But companies often get in the way by trying to direct employee interest to specific causes or “partner organizations.” This can in some cases be successful, particularly if there’s alignment between the cause focus and the company.

    But some employees see their own giving as a very personal thing, a choice they make. In these instances it’s a better approach for companies to make it easier for employees to deepen the involvement at an organization they already care about, either through incentives like volunteer time off or through matching grants.

    You can learn a little bit about our Employee Volunteer Program here, including some case studies:

    Thanks again,
    Robert Rosenthal

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