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[caption id="attachment_14801" align="alignleft" width="108" caption="Nigel Hartley"][/caption]

What does a disengaged employee cost? The short answer is a lot more than a few years ago. We are now in a very tough recession, and although there are signs we may have bottomed there is no doubt that the economy will be challenged for the next couple of years. We are all having to do more with less, so the employees you have need to be fully engaged.

What is an engaged employee?  The best method for achieving sustainable employee engagement, which is required for an organization to reach its goals, is to align employees' values, goals and aspirations with those of the organization. I believe that toward the end of the recent boom we started to lose sight of this because everything was relatively easy, and it did not matter because the disengaged employee just moved on and became a turnover statistic.

In today's tight economy there is nowhere for the disengaged employee to go, so they become a drain on the organization, affecting productivity and morale for starters. If the disengaged employee is a manager then it will also affect employee turnover, as the number one reason for people leaving a company is their relationship with their immediate supervisor. So the cost to the organization is significant and can be the start of a virus spreading throughout the whole organization.

Now it is not all bad news as the U.S. leads the world (except India) in employee engagement, according to a recent report by Blessing White. But it is all relative as only just over 50 percent of U.S. employees feel engaged.   At the top end VPs and officers are more engaged, but at the clerical/administrative/operator level there is over a 20 percent drop off. Why is there such a dramatic drop?

Let's take a look at your own business. As the owner or manager you have a very good idea of the values and goals of your organization. You are probably surrounded by a small group of direct reports who also have a pretty good understanding of what is expected, but what about the rest of the company? You have periodic meetings and of course there is the employee handbook, but are you really communicating with your employees? Could they tell you what your mission statement is (if you even have one)?  So exactly how and when are you communicating and engaging with your employees?

I would argue that if you are accustomed to meeting with your team once a month, meet with them at least twice a month right now. Given the economic downturn we are all trying to do more with less, but your employees are not as engaged as they were because they are scared, angry and fearful all at the same time. We don't fully understand where the overall economy is going, let alone our own little world. So over communicate.

You as the owner set the tone, and the company culture will reflect your beliefs. People want face time. If you can help them connect what's important to them with what's important to the organization, you can make a positive impact on their job satisfaction, commitment and contribution.

Involve your managers in the process. In times like this employees are crying out for mentoring and coaching, so have them work more closely with their teams, not just from a skills standpoint but fully understanding their goals and aspirations and providing guidance and training to achieve those goals.

I can already hear comments like, "We can't afford this in these difficult times," but training and coaching does not have to be expensive.  It can be in-house, informal, maybe even off the clock.  The cost of not doing this will be much higher in loss of productivity or employee turnover.

During the hiring process pay more attention to the personal attributes of the candidate. All too often we pay too much attention to the technical skills required and pay no consideration to the culture these potential employees will work in. Hire engage-able team members. By way of example, Apple hires creative, spirited individuals who enjoy working in a very casual environment. Oracle, on the other hand, is a more buttoned-down organization that at one time seemed to only hire MBAs. Now they are both very successful organizations but moving from Apple to Oracle would be challenging, as would moving in the other direction.

In these difficult times it is not enough to "batten down the hatches" or "ride out the storm" because there is no immediate relief in sight, and the innovative companies are investing in their future.  Focusing on employee engagement is only one strategy in maintaining a successful organization, but it is one that will produce immediate and ongoing results with limited up-front costs.

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Nigel Hartley is the president of Commonwealth Advisors and is an accredited associate of the Institute for Independent Business, a CMT senior mentor and a certified behaviors coach working primarily with small business owners.  Nigel can be reached at 707-573-7154, or you can e-mail him at nigelhartley@cmtmentors.com.