(Dis-)Engagement Begins Sooner Than You Think

As of this writing, thousands upon thousands of people are losing their jobs each month. Appropriately, the challenges these people face is now a very relevant, sensitive, and passionate topic. Employee engagement for these downsized individuals in their next job is also becoming relevant now.

When managers and HR professionals talk about engagement in the work environment, they are usually referring to their currentemployees. But most who study engagement and retention would agree that employee engagement begins with interactions that occur during the recruiting process. And for many, that first “interaction” in the recruiting process is not with a person at all – it is with the organization’s web site.

What Exactly Is Engagement?
There isn’t an exact definition that all (or perhaps any) authorities agree on. But most definitions seem to be in the same general ballpark.

According to the ISR Employee Engagement Report, “Employee engagement is the extent to which employees are committed to, believe in and support the company’s values, feel pride in working for their employer, and are motivated to go the extra mile.”

DDI’s article, “Employee Engagement: The Key to Realizing Competitive Advantage,” defines engagement as “the extent to which people enjoy and believe in what they do and feel valued for doing it.”

The book, Employee Engagement: Developing a Culture of Engagement, Trust and Accomplishment currently in press by Brad Federman of Performancepoint, defines engagement as: “The degree to which people commit to an organization and the impact that commitment has on how profoundly they perform and their length of tenure. Three central aspects of high Employee Engagement levels are:


  • Clearer Connections: Individuals fortify commitment based on increasing the number and strength of the connections or mutually beneficial bonds with their work and environment.
  • Improved Trust: Employees are able to be more present and focus on the needs of others, causing them to build high-trust relationships with internal and external customers.
  • Increased Success: Employees are able to see opportunities, as opposed to just managing risks, causing them to drive themselves and the business forward in an ownership manner.”

Hewitt’s article, “Employee Engagement Higher at Double-Digit Growth Companies”, says the following: “Engagement is defined by the state in which individuals are emotionally and intellectually committed to the organization or group, as measured by three primary behaviors:

  • Say – The employee consistently speaks positively about the organization to coworkers and refers potential employees and customers;
  • Stay – The employee has an intense desire to be a member of the organization, despite opportunities to work elsewhere; and
  • Strive – The employee exerts extra effort and exhibits behaviors that contribute to business success.”

(For a comprehensive analysis of different approaches to defining employee engagement, see Macey’s and Schneider’s 2008 article titled, “The Meaning of Employee Engagement,” in the journal, “Industrial and Organizational Psychology.”)

Emotions Associated With Job Hunting
Let’s consider the increasingly common perspective of a recently downsized person. For most people who have been in the workforce for many years, getting laid off causes an emotional roller coaster.

There are negative feelings, likely relating to rejection, resentment, anger, etc., toward the company. There is also fear about the realities of the house note, the medical insurance, and the bills. And, there is apprehension about the unknown and confusion about what to do next.

There may also be positive feelings. Family, friends, and ex-coworkers often call to provide emotional and tactical support. Many people are very sympathetic to those who have been laid off, and show that sympathy sincerely. In some cases, there is relief about leaving behind certain unpleasant aspects of the job. There might even be an element of exhilaration around the opportunity to start fresh.

Though people experience these emotions to varying degrees, the key here is that both the negative and positive emotions can be intense. The person is likely feeling very vulnerable. Most importantly, these laid off people are probably approaching upcoming job openings with loaded emotions, as opposed to a cool and distant detachment.

To be fair, not all job hunters were recently downsized. The proverbial passive job-seeker may in fact have that cool and distant detachment. But if we consider the recent plights of thousands of Microsoft, Caterpillar, Pfizer, Sprint Nextel, Macy’s, Panasonic, and Home Depot employees, it is safe to treat distant detachment as the exception rather than the rule.

And, most of the ones who look distantly detached to the uninformed observer probably are not, in actuality. Best-case scenario, they are unsettled. Worst-case scenario, they are tense and upset, even if they don’t show that side to a recruiter or interviewer.

Messages to the Job Hunter
When the newly laid off job hunter comes to your website with his/her own bundle of emotions, are you sending a message that is likely to engage that person? Consider these examples.

One university’s website contains the following excerpts of instructions on their job applications page: “Transcripts provided by the applicant in a sealed envelope will not be considered official (bolding theirs).”

An application for employment is incomplete without all of the required documents indicated above ….. Incomplete applications will not be considered. Unsolicited applications will not be accepted (bolding theirs).”

Granted, one cannot physically see our fifth grade teachers inside that website, wagging their fingers in our faces, reminding us that we’re too stupid to understand even simple instructions. Further, one cannot prove that the tone of that message was condescending; one can only “feel” it. Perhaps it was just intended to be very clear about consequences (like the written warnings people get from HR when their performance is too bad for too long).

At the very least, the message shows a rules orientation. Thus, one of the job hunter’s earliest exposures to that university is about rules and following instructions. It is not about encouragement, about peoples’ unique qualities, or why the university cherishes the people that work for it. (Aren’t universities supposed to foster our thought leaders?)

Compare that to the tone set by Google, Inc., listed as one of the 100 Best Places to Work in America – on its website. It provides detailed information about what to expect in the hiring process, how to prepare a resume that gets their attention, and tips for standing out in their interview process. This site also includes videos of employees describing why they enjoy working for the company. A quote on the site from a co-founder in the organization proclaims, “We don’t just want you to have a great job. We want you to have a great life.”

JM Family is also on that list. Here are excerpts from their website: “…we are preparing for a great future. We continuously seek qualified, highly motivated individuals who demonstrate our guiding principles of consideration, cooperation, communication, accountability and innovation. Join JM Family and grow within a thriving organization that is dedicated to excellence. …JM Family is built on the philosophy that our associates are our most important asset (bolding theirs).”

Impact on Engagement
Using the general understanding of engagement outlined previously and the messages conveyed in the web site examples, let’s ask ourselves the following. Which organization would the job hunter think is least likely to:

  • Garner commitment from its employees?
  • Make employees feel valued?
  • Facilitate trust?
  • Be spoken about positively by employees?
  • Foster an intense desire by employees to work there?

Are we assigning too much importance to a website? Perhaps. Let’s just do a common-sense test here. If you were a job-hunter, would any of the following impact your early perceptions of a company?



Probably so. And if the website is your organization’s first interaction with the job hunter, it’s also your first opportunity to begin engaging, or disengaging, your future employees.

This was originally published with three other colleagues on http://www.recruitingtrends.com/online/thoughtleadership/1349-1.html 

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