Whose Responsibility is it to Ensure that Employees are Engaged in their Work?

Once I had an employee who was a star, well, perhaps, more than once, but this employee, I remember well.  She had just graduated with a Degree in Commerce from UBC and we hired her into the HR department at UBC.  We hired three graduates that year, and all were amazing, but Janice was my star.

We worked together on many projects and she always exceeded my expectations.  So I gave her more challenging tasks.  Then one day, she said that she needed to talk to me. By the tone of her voice, I realized that this was going to be a serious discussion.  I don’t know how I knew, but just before our meeting, I realized that she was going to tell me that she was leaving, that she had another job offer. And I was right, I was about to lose my star.

I was devastated, really.  It might seem strange, but I had hoped that we would continue to work together for many years, and this was not to be.  At the same time, I knew that I had nothing to offer her.  The HR department was fully staffed and we didn’t have any exciting projects coming up.  She had taken some time to study her new employer and she knew this was the move she wanted to make.  She was, after all, building her portfolio.

All I needed to do to engage Janice was offer her new opportunities, but this time, I couldn’t do that.  I know that she was, and still is, an exceptional employee, (and a wonderful person).  Other employees need more.

So how do we engage employees? It strikes me that the first thing we need to do is to be honest in how we describe jobs when we hire people.  We need to talk about the mundane along with the exciting, the long work hours as well as the great holidays.  In other words, we need to draw a clear picture of the job and not oversell it.  This can be difficult, especially if we find someone we really want to hire, but we aren’t sure that the job will offer enough variety or growth for that person.  It is so tempting to make promises that we might not be able to keep.

Once we hire a person, we need to check in with them to see how they are doing on the job.  I know this is built into many orientation and onboarding programs, but I wonder how often we follow through.  In her article, Help New Hires Succeed: Beat the Statistics,Caela Farren, PhD, says that people decide whether they feel comfortable in a job in the first three weeks, so during this brief period it is critical to follow-up.

I have found that people who are learning are more likely to be engaged.  I know this might sound odd, but I have also found that the learning doesn’t need to be job related.   One of my colleagues at BCIT took time off to improve her math skills, even though math wasn’t even tangentially related to her work.  She came back energized, feeling more confident because she had mastered something that had always eluded her. The opportunity to learn new things expands our horizons, makes us think differently, and sometimes, more deeply, about many things.   This keeps employees engaged.

Surprisingly enough, I have found that basic amenities in a workplace will also keep people engaged.  A lunch room, where staff can gather and share ideas over food makes a huge difference – I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve walked away from our lunch room having made an important discovery that has saved me hours of work.   Perhaps a quick IT tip or someone sharing a link to a topic I’m about to explore.  These discussions keep us engaged with our colleagues and enable us to better serve our clients.

Seeing one another as multifaceted and engaging on different levels can energize employees.   Although not everyone wants to share their private lives at work, many people are willing to share their interests.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, where I work, almost everyone travels the world on their vacations, so we have this in common.  Sometimes a discussion might begin with travel and end with ideas about work.

I was interested to read about Best Buy’s practice of thinking of employees as a ‘workforce of one’ thus tailoring each person’s work to best utilize their skills challenge them to excel.   This reminds me of the idea of mass customization, used by companies like Lands’ End to produce uniforms that are unique to their clients and according to Fralix, mass customization is also used by Porsche, who never make the same car twice!

So while it may seem a daunting task to tailor both the composition of the job and professional development to each employee, I would think that once that employee is engaged, it will take a lot to get them off track.

So back to the original question; engagement, like most things is a moving target and varies with individuals, but I like to think of it as a ‘natural state’.  Sometimes we will need to encourage our colleagues or employees and other times they will take us for a ‘spin’ and get us going.  Engagement, like energy spreads, it is contagious within the person and within the organization. We are all responsible to keep it going!


Farren,Caela. (2007).Help New Hires Succeed: Beat the Statistics

MasteryWorks, Inc.


Nolan, Sara. (2011). Employee engagement, Strategic HR Review10. 3 (2011): 3-4.


Fralix, Michael T. (2001). From Mass Production to Mass Customization. Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management Volume 1 Issue 2, Winter, 2001

Click to access fralix_full.pdf

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