PHOENIX—Drawing from real-world examples and best practices from clients, consultant Alison Davis on Oct. 6, 2009, helped senior HR leaders in attendance at the Society for Human Resource Management Strategy Conference understand how to improve employee engagement in their organizations.

Davis first walked attendees through reasons why employees become disengaged. Companies' reactions to the recession is a key reason: 72 percent of companies have reduced their workforce in response to the recession, according to Towers Perrin, and the number of actively disengaged workers has gone up from 3 percent to 24 percent in organizations that have laid off employees, Gallup researchers found.

In addition, some employees distrust leaders, Davis said. One of her clients found that only 64 percent of its employees "trust the information that I get from senior leaders," and only 52 percent agree that "senior leaders' actions are consistent with what they say." These are "terrible numbers" that demonstrate why workers become disengaged, Davis said.

Different demographics within an organization are disengaged for different reasons, Davis said. Many Baby Boomers are burned out, looking forward to retirement but not able to retire because of the economy. Some Gen Xers are stuck in the middle, unable to move up in the company because the Baby Boomers are still in the top positions. Many Millennials focus on their career but don't associate career success with longevity at one job. Most will have four jobs by their 27th birthday, Davis said. They expect total transparency and feedback because they are so used to having a world of information at their fingertips via the Internet.

Management practices are stuck in the fifties, Davis asserted. Top-down hierarchy, allowing only top leaders to make decisions and restricting access to information hurt engagement.

Lastly, employees disengage from work because of the way work is done, Davis said. Employees stationed around the country with clients around the world don't interact face to face. Too often, communication is through BlackBerry messages sent at all times of the day.

To engage a skeptical workforce, Davis said, HR should treat employees as customers. "You have to persuade them to be engaged," she said, advising:

  • Determine what the outcomes should be. Each company will have its key engagement indicators; they might include engagement survey scores, performance and retention. "Keep an eye on these indicators, to make sure that your engagement plan is working toward these outcomes," Davis said.
  • Ask your customers/employees what would engage them. Davis encouraged attendees to conduct focus groups of their employees, asking them what they need to be successful and what about work drives them crazy. Have someone from outside the organization moderate the group. "You'll be amazed at what you'll learn," she said.
  • Connect the dots for the employees. Help them understand how what they do contributes to the company's goals and success.
  • Employ the "Swiffer Strategy," said Davis, pointing to a new way to clean floors that doesn't involve a bucket and mop. Swiffer designers answered an age-old problem in an innovative way. "Think differently about how to solve problems," she urged.
  • Help leaders be successful by supporting their strengths and working on or around their weaknesses, Davis said. Employees need to hear from their leaders during difficult times, even if the person at the top doesn't have an answer to the problem. It's comforting just to hear the pilot's voice when the plane is going through turbulence, she said.

Middle managers are the most trusted leaders in the organization, Davis said. Help them be successful, give them freedom to do their jobs more easily and train them to be good managers. As a result, everyone will be more engaged because their employees will follow their lead.

Use social media to help employees connect across the organization. Best Buy's internal employee web site, Blue Shirt Nation, was established to help employees communicate with workers in other stores to solve common problems. Now it's so much more than that, Davis said. "It's letting them contribute and be innovative," she said. Social media sites can let employees share ideas and connect. Business leaders can watch as employee engagement grows.

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at