Language is the centrepiece for employee engagement

Why it’s good to talk……


So many organisations have engagement on the top agenda. But, why is it still so important? We know that organisations where employees are truly engaged out perform in their market place, keep their customers, retain employee loyalty have better productivity and bring in great financial results. This is despite a climate of uncertainty, increased stress levels, pay freezes continuing and high unemployment levels in young people.


I see the results of organisations annual employee engagement surveys and it is no surprise that 4 out of 10 employees are not engaged (passively disengaged!) and that pay (normally a hygiene factor) recently moved to 3rd according to Aon Hewitt global survey and that 65% of employees cite stress for being off work and that it is caused by a combination of work and external pressures. HR Directors are frustrated as they know that management style is one of the biggest causes of work related stress.


So I found myself recently speaking at an event on this and asked the group of senior HR professionals how important language is at work. For me it comes down to a number of things, and relationships with immediate managers is the biggest influence on employee engagement;

  1. Are your employees allowed to express themselves freely at work? We know that employees become disengaged when they feel constrained and afraid to speak up. Is it okay to say “I’m feeling stressed” at work? Or would their manager frown upon this and think they are weak, unable to cope? Would your managers know what sort of opening questions to ask or would they say “Why can’t you get your act together” or “What do you expect me to do about it”? Many line managers fall into this trap without the guidance of HR encouraging them to ask instead, what support they can offer or saying what they have noticed. Do your managers really care? They should as talking openly and honestly with people is real engagement and can make all the difference to motivation and productivity.
  2. Do your employees speak positively about you as an employer either to each other, your customers/clients or to potential new recruits? Do you really know what they are saying? Have you ever spent any time listening to them, being on the ‘shop floor’, out with your customers, following up with applicants after the recruitment process?
  3. Do your managers avoid having difficult conversations? They want to appear nice and be liked, but people value being told the truth, they know where they are then. Senior leaders have an important part to play in this with regards to being credible. Helping senior managers to have effective dialogue with people is key to this, being friendly helps, but being honest is far more important.


I would encourage HR professionals to really focus on how they can enable dialogue and understand if the language used in their organisation is really fit for purpose. Think about simple things like your policies and procedures, are they too technical, full of jargon, 9 pages long? Will people really read them if they are? Not likely so simplify them, think of the words you use, try to make it more of a dialogue and two way discussion, shrink them to no more than 2-3 pages!


What about how you engage with employees using social media? Can you tap into technology to really engage with your employees in short bursts? Using twitter as a discipline in terms of no more than 140 characters really makes you think about how you might communicate and engage with people. What will they remember having read? I am not suggesting setting everyone up on twitter, but, limiting your communication to short bursts might have more impact and get the messages through?


Encourage managers to spend time face to face and just talk. It is amazing how many surveys I see where 60%+ of managers feel they give plenty of time to their employees and meet with them regularly for reviews yet the employee (less than 30%) feels they get hardly any time at all and their manager doesn’t really value them. So this often results in poor communication, lack of direction and reduced motivation.


Yes, there needs to be dialogue around deadlines and targets, giving direction and instructions, discussions on performance both good and bad. But, it is the way these things are talked through that matters in engagement. I would encourage a blend of informal and personal conversations balanced with directional dialogue and encourage managers to be more inclusive.


For me engagement is not about a diamond ring! It really is about good old conversations, dialogue and plain talking It is about relationships with managers and I think HR can ensure that the language of their organisations flows through the whole employee lifecycle.


Esther O’ Halloran