Can employee engagement be successfully implemented, and can it deliver results, within the operations of a pet retailer?
Scott Ahlstrad, senior vice president of talent management for Broadview Heights, Ohio-based Right Management, says he has seen it work in many retail settings.
“In retail, I think of it almost as a silver bullet,” Ahlstrad said. “Most programs around the work force that would be initiated – coaching, assessment, on-boarding, performance management – have upside to the retailer. But that upside has some limit to it. What I love about employee engagement is that it’s been analytically proven to be a strong impact on all kinds of key business metrics that retailers care about – productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction, shrink, quality and speed, as well as a lot of intangibles.”
Employee engagement involves extensive surveying to gauge employee attitudes and the depth of their emotional investment in their jobs and in the mission of their employers. Some critics of the practice have suggested the notion is overwrought and merely the latest trendy management idea that doesn’t tie that closely to bottom-line results. Writing in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Liz Ryan says many employees can do everything that’s needed of them without much emotional investment at all.
“People plug into their work at different levels and for different reasons,” Ryan wrote. “Your IT people, if they’re like lots of techies, may connect to their work at the level of the most interesting problems they’re asked to solve. They may have no clue about your company’s mission and goals, and care even less. That’s fine. You don’t need them to memorize the company’s fight song. You just need their brains and energy plugged in where it counts.”
She also criticized engagement surveys as insulting to employees, and as indicators that real-world communication in an organization is not where it should be.
But Ahlstrad disagrees, saying that most employees want to be engaged – but especially at the retail level it can be difficult to find managers talented enough to do it effectively, while it’s far too easy to find bad management practices that have disengaged employees.
“Most managers who are in retail shouldn’t be managing,” Ahlstrad said. “If you look at management studies, you’ll find that maybe 20 to 30 percent of people who are managing are born for that, having the innate natural talent to do that and do it well. Another 20 percent can do that job if you surround them with the right tools and practices. A third to half the managers shouldn’t be managing people.”
Employee engagement, Alhstrad said, can help overcome those issues in a retail setting, but it can’t be one-size-fits-all.
“We tend to take a lowest-common-denominator approach to engagement,” Ahlstrad said. “Companies genericize their approach to the lowest employee. You have to realize that there are things from the top down, from senior leadership, that have to be addressed in a systematic way that also affects your employees. Engagement is both a bottom-up and a top-down sport.”
Mary Knight, a talent management consultant with Gallup, recommends three strategies companies can use to integrate employee engagement into their regular routines:
Define the engagement goal in real-world terms. This means everyone on the team can recognize the metrics that would define success or failure in meeting the goal.
Talk with team members one-on-one about engagement. This helps to break down the resistance some employees might feel to discussing issues in a group setting.
Empower team members to lead team engagement sessions. This seeks to take advantage of the employees’ intimate knowledge of issues on the floor.
“The ultimate goal of any engagement effort must be to transform the culture, so the primary goal of a company’s engagement efforts should not be creating an impact plan,” Knight said.