Engagement in the Face of Adversity
by Fraser Marlow, VP Research, BlessingWhite

I dodged a question …

During one of our earlier book-launch webcasts for 'The Engagement Equation,' I was asked a specific question on how to engage part-time staff. I gave a rather weak answer about acknowledging why an employee might choose to be part-time and working on developing their role within the parameters of part-time employment. After the fact I felt that I had dodged the true challenge: how to engage part-time staff that is looking for full-time work when the company is not prepared to give it to them.


We can look at this part-time dilemma to answer a broader question: how do organizations engage staff in the face of adverse policies or unpopular business decisions?

A part-time problem

The engagement of involuntary part-time staff is an interesting example of this challenge, because part-time workers tend to fall roughly into two groups: those who have the luxury of working part-time because it suits their lifestyle or their work/life balance needs and those who work part-time because their employer dictates it.

The challenges of 'involuntary part-time' work are particularly acute in the United States (where it is referred to by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as 'Part-time employment for economic reasons') when it comes to unskilled or low-skilled hourly jobs. Eight million Americans – or one fifth of the working population – are currently part-time employees.

An additional headwind in the US to full-time hiring is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), which many employers say will encourage them to maintain workers on 30 hours or less per week (subscription required) to avoid healthcare costs.

In Europe, where the recession is still entrenched, things are no better. In Britain alone 1.4 million men are taking on shifts and casual work because they cannot find a full-time job and 1.77 million Britons are classed as 'underemployed.' As of November 2012, 29% of employed people aged 16 and over work less than 30 hours a week.

The challenge in retail

I could probably have moved on and accepted my weak answer if it wasn't for the great article by Steven Greenhouse writing in the New York Times: A Part-Time Life, as Hours Shrink and Shift (October 28, 2012) and a subsequent radio interview on WHYY.

Organizations (in this case retail) are perfecting the science of 'shift optimization' – meaning taking every opportunity to reduce the number of paid hours an employee is asked to work in order to maximize the profit margin for the company. Employees must agree to schedules that vary week-to-week and are only announced at the last minute. As a result staff must remain 'on call,' which limits their ability to schedule any other type of activity.

Yet, ironically, it is in the service industry (such as hospitality and retail) that engagement and business outcomes are the most immediately linked. Engaged employees make for happy customers and successful stores. What rational executive would not want that?

[Update June 2013: I would like to provide a link to another article about the successful policites at Costco, the US based discount retailer.]

But what really is the cost?

This type of practice, as detailed in Greenhouse's article, cuts to the heart of a dilemma facing companies today: when does a policy or employment practice have such a negative impact on engagement that the economic benefits of the policy are outweighed by the negative consequences of the resulting disengagement?

Conversely, as organizations plan activities that 'boost morale' or improve individual engagement, how can they justify the investments of time and resources and quantify the contribution of the additional employee commitment to the bottom line?

In The Engagement Equation we explain how reassessing policies and procedures with a critical eye is one of the six steps of building a culture of engagement. But this can only be accomplished if you have a good understanding of how engagement impacts your business in the first place – along with buy-in and commitment from the executive team.

We frequently encounter senior executives who believe that their first obligation is to their shareholders – and will pursue any profit-enhancing strategy no matter the cost in employee satisfaction. In the current economic climate labor supply in these industries outstrips demand. As a consequence companies are not yet seeing the downside of low engagement or are accustomed to high turnover.

But much more common than such 'Theory X' executives are those who broadly understand the value of engaged employees and are generally in favor of developing higher engagement, but are not able to gauge the impact of policies because they can't articulate the direct impact that engagement has on the business.

A manager's dilemma – the organization's problem

Executive commitment aside, we frequently get asked this by managers: "How can I keep my team engaged in the face of policies that put the company's interests ahead of those of the employees?"

This is a very common exasperation among managers who are told to hold tight and 'engage the troops' in the face of blatant adversity imposed by senior management. Executives expect the managers to somehow bring team members along and even protect the integrity of the employer's reputation while asking more from every employee on their team.

"When I was looking for work I did find that the majority of employers were looking for part-time workers. It's less of a liability for them. What's best for them is having people at their call. And that's not going to be me. I will always put my children first and I am not going to make them suffer to make my life more comfortable."

— Tamara Green, from NYT interview of part-time retail workers

A manager can't alter reality. If the company's leadership team decides to push through a policy that will significantly impact the satisfaction of a large number of employees, managers can't prevent the damage. This is especially true when the managers themselves are part of the affected group. But like all factors that are out of a manager's immediate control, there are ways to soften the blow.

Step one: Job fit

Often an organization will work hard to attract a specific workforce only to impose policies and procedures that indicate they don't understand – or value – what really motivates that particular population. Examples might include hiring technical professionals who value autonomy and imposing onerous project-tracking processes. In the retail example above, it would benefit the company to go back and ask, "If we are going to mandate part-time flexible shifts, what employee population would be a good fit?" The Etihad Airlines case in The Engagement Equation is an example of a company that planned ahead to effectively match job variables to a specific audience.

Ensuring the right job fit and aligned interests from the beginning is half the battle won.

Step two: The role of the executives

When an unpopular policy or business change is implemented, it is important for executives to get out in front of the news. They need to communicate the changes in a way that does not avoid the challenges but explains the logic behind the change. The worst thing executives can do is hide away and rely on the managers to push through the changes with no support, context or visible executive sponsorship.

Economic context is important. During the dark days of the economic crisis in late 2008 and 2009, senior executives were able to push through some tough measures. Despite cutbacks, redundancies, and painful policies to avert bankruptcy, many companies were able to sustain reasonable levels of employee engagement because we all understood the context: difficult choices had to be made. Broadly speaking, executives actually scored well in leading the troops through the choppy waters of the recession.

But when the sense of urgency lifts, when profitability looks healthy, how does an executive sell the idea that more belt-tightening is required? The challenge of part-time workers in retail, for example, is an economic decision by employers and not a change imposed by outside economic forces. Many retailers are not pursuing the strategy of reducing the number of full-time workers, and the business headlines following Thanksgiving speak of 'A Record Black Friday Weekend.'

Executives need to pause and consider carefully the best leadership communication strategy for getting all affected employees to understand the rationale for change. A failure to bring employees along will result in poor alignment at the manager level and cynicism among employees.

Step three: Managers need to address the impact at the local level

Understood: an individual manager does not get to overrule a corporate mandate. But they can explain the changes in plain terms and in as much detail as possible, making sure everybody understands the change. Then provide support and work with his or her team to get through these changes and mitigate the impact at a local level. It won't be easy, but this is no time to be detached, to hide behind the manager role. In terms of 'social distance' this is a time to be close to team members and to talk about how this affects everybody, acknowledge the impact and discuss what elements are in the team's control or the manager's control so that they can work together on addressing these.

Step four: Involve employees

Even if employees have no say in the unpopular policy decision that gets rolled out, managers can – and should – have them involved in identifying possible solutions at a local level that might alleviate the impact. If a manager has developed a strong working relationship with direct reports they will have the option of working together, to discuss the impact of the changes and how the team might adapt to these new parameters.

At the end of the day…

There is no doubt that organizations that repeatedly impose unpopular changes on their workforce will be driving down engagement over time, and there is only so much a manager can do to help individual team members remain engaged in the face of adversity. At the end of the day organizations need to carefully weigh the long-term effect a new policy will have on engagement against the short-term impact it will have on the bottom line. The trend of over-reliance on part-time staff in retail, for example, may backfire if companies don't rethink their hiring practices and attract employees for whom part-time is not just the norm but the expectation.

According to Brian Groom, Business and Employment Editor at the Financial Times, companies need to take an approach that is "less paternalistic than it has been in the past. […] It is going to take give-and-take and both sides need this. The employees need this as well. […] On the optimistic side I think there are moves on both sides to try and make this work." [See]

This may be true with regards to higher-educated staff working in 'knowledge worker' and expert roles. The leadership challenge of bringing along hourly workers – who often bear the brunt of organizational policies and have fewer options than highly skilled employees – remains great, especially if senior leadership is not prioritizing engagement.

For more information on how BlessingWhite can help your organization reach the next level, call 1.800.222.1349 or email

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Volume 12, Issue 11
November 2012

2012 Release

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