Elton John, HR and Employee Engagement

By Elliot H. Clark

What do I do to make you want me?
What have I got to do to be heard?
What do I say when it’s all over,
And sorry seems to be the hardest word?

Actually, retention is a sad, sad situation for HR. And, for you hiring managers when “lightning strikes you” and an employee “is not there,” it isn’t because HR is not doing enough retention programming. The answer to the question of why people are leaving may be lurking in the mirror. 

We have, again, reached the part of the year when HRO Today magazine looks at the issues of employee recognition, engagement, and retention. There are hundreds of articles online about HR strategy for engagement. You can find a lot written about the overwhelming impact of the relationship between an employee and their direct superior. There are also hundreds of articles about the impact of social recognition and on how to coach leaders to improve engagement. But sadly, I cannot find a single case study where the HR leadership was armed with the HR equivalent of a red card, which they could throw at a “jerk” manager to have them escorted to the locker room by stripe-shirted referees.   

HR has accepted this reality and plays a part in the measurement of managerial behaviors, the coaching and development of leaders, and the hearing of front line associates’ grievances. Certainly engagement surveys identify managers in need of “coaching” but companies are often slow to act on the obvious bad actors.  Everyone in executive management jumps to attention, however, when a lawyer shows up with a plea and a trove of discovery requests. It is only then that the leadership team talks about “the warning signs.”   

When it comes to employee engagement and retention, the principal weapon in the arsenal of HR is not program design—it is persuasion. It is a lot of accountability for an inessential amount of responsibility. HR should have more liberty to take action against line management that fails the behavioral norms without have to go up and down the chain of command for approval. I am not advocating for injudicious exercise of authority or rolling out the guillotine at the first infraction, but managers who engage in destructive behavior should be singled out and then just be out.

I recently spoke to an HR leader who told me about an executive who had joined her company a a year ago. This new executive is a bully and has taken credit for their subordinates successes, telling the CEO about these accomplishments without giving recognition to the key performers who are now swarming job boards, LinkedIn, and local headhunters offices. But, the CEO is buying the new executive’s stories, and HR is rendered powerless. But what could this HR leader use as a “red card” in this situation?

Recognition is one of the easiest and most important ways a manager can give an employee guidance. Positive and, particularly, social recognition are powerful motivators. One of my former colleagues used to quip that no one ever complained at the dinner table about getting too many compliments at work. It is true, yet many managers do not give recognition well.  Managers also fail to take necesssary actions based on employee feedback to change the emotional dynamic in the office and help stem or reverse the tide of employees leaving. 

HR has more influence than ever, and CEOs tell HRO Today that HR “owns” responsibility for talent management (meaning acquisition, development, and retention). If HR is going to own it, is time to up the ante and give HR more leverage to make their organization’s line management model the behaviors and values that make a great culture. 

Because “sorry” is not only the hardest word, but by the time line managers say it, it is, often a word that comes too late.

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