The Business of Employee Engagement

3.5 minute read

In the course of coaching executives, we frequently refer to Gallup’s annual statistical data around the engagement, or lack thereof, of the American workforce. For the last decade, the numbers have been static: roughly one third of the workforce are extremely engaged, 50% are neither engaged nor disengaged, and one sixth is actively disengaged and even sabotaging their workplace. Gallup estimates the cost of disengagement at half a trillion dollars per year in lost productivity. These costs, more often than not, are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices, longer waits, and lower-quality products and services.

Nobody likes to see prices go up or their buying power reduced. We all want more for our money. However, we’d like to present something for your consideration. At the businesses that you patronize or frequent—the great ones, the good ones, and the marginal ones—do you ever stop to ask the people who wait on you:

  • Do you like your job?
  • Do you like the people you work with and for?
  • Do the people you work for treat you well?
  • Do they care about you?
  • Do they know where you’re hoping to go from here?

The fact is, the people who serve your food, coffee, groceries, and other goods are making minimum wage or $10-$15 an hour at most. They aren’t getting rich and most aren’t planning to make a career out of working in this place. Even still, we think you’ll find the extent to which they’re engaged at work directly correlates with the business’s ability to provide an attractive service or product at a competitive price. We absolutely agree that an engaged and happy employee is more productive and cares more about customer service provision and the customer’s experience.

And we’re not alone in our thinking. Major corporations seem to be catching on to the fact that fulfilled employees are good for business. Currently, there is a McDonald’s commercial airing on network television that features a young woman starting a job at McDonald’s in high school and using it as a springboard to succeed through college graduation—with their support. The company is billing itself “America’s Best First Job” and touting their financial support of employee education and professional development. The message is clear: McDonald’s is a high-quality place to work, a place where employees are motivated and fulfilled, a place you can feel good about patronizing with your family. A few years ago, worldwide juggernaut Walmart also famously raised their wages to stop plummeting sales, and the tactic appears to be working.

Most people are quick to stop patronizing a service when it’s not good, but how often will you continue to patronize a low-price or high-quality service when you, the customer, aren’t treated well?

Likewise, if we know how poorly their employees are being treated, would we keep going back?

We believe that when employees are mistreated, the poor treatment eventually reflects in customer service, experience, and long-run costs of the product or service. We can plainly see it in grocery stores. Do you want to go back to the store whose baggers smoosh your bread every week? Where nothing is stocked and the food on the shelves is routinely out of date? Are low prices enough to offset visibly dirty refrigerated cases? All of these problems are rooted in the frontline service employees’ daily effort, which is motivated by their treatment, compensation, and perception of valuable opportunities available to them.

By having that conversation with the service people we interact with every day, do we raise the bar for their employer? Perhaps…if enough of us do it. But more importantly, by having those conversations, we can draw important conclusions for the businesses we lead, and the people we hope will choose to follow us.

For this week: Look for opportunities to ask customer service representatives, the receptionist at the doctor’s office, cashiers at local businesses, and other service folks you interact with how they’re treated. They may not elaborate, but you’ll know the look on their faces when you see it. How does the employees’ everyday experience relate to the quality of service you receive? Your overall experience while you’re there? The prices you pay?