When great perks fail: What you should know about engagement

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”



I once consulted with a company whose initial idea on employee retention and engagement was something of a spin on Yoda’s famous “path to the dark side” quote; let’s call it their “path to a better company” philosophy:


“The best perks package is the path to the company’s success. Perks allows us to attract the top talent and leads to happy employees.  Happy employees lead to happy customers.  Happy customers served by the top talent make us the best in the business.” (paraphrased)


Fast forward a few years, and the company had grown increasingly frustrated to find that their employee satisfaction ratings were slipping by a few percentage points every time they conducted a satisfaction survey. When I investigated, we interviewed employees and found that what started out as a perk was now an expectation or an entitlement.  We decided to conduct an employee engagement survey instead of a satisfaction survey.  What we found was that about 15% of employees were “actively engaged” and about another 20% were “engaged”.  The rest were “disengaged” or “actively disengaged”.  So what we had was a situation where employees were satisfied (for the moment), but not engaged.  It reminded me of the research by Professor Amit Kramer where he concluded, “[A pay raise] might have a short-term effect on pay satisfaction, but individuals are likely to regress to their initial pay satisfaction level over time.” (Read about the study here)  In other words, what began as a nice perk can quickly become an expectation and an entitlement, and the end result is almost identical to the beginning state.


That is where the primary difference lies between employee satisfaction and engagement. Satisfaction is what you do for your employees.  It’s the free meals and snacks, the on-site massage and fitness classes, and it’s providing a pet-friendly workplace.  Those are all good and noble things to do for your employees, but the trap that most employers fall into is in thinking that providing those extras to employees will put them in a sustained state of bliss.  In fact those things on their own do very little in the long run for the success of a business.  On the other hand, employee engagement is an interactive process through which employees at all levels feel connected to the mission, vision and purpose of the company and strive to achieve company goals creatively and with passion.


Going back to the story of the company I was working with that had confused satisfaction and engagement, the obvious next question is “What did you do about it?” In an interesting twist, employee engagement initiatives have a lot in common with lean operations principles, and I’ll get into more detail there in my next article.

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