Hello, I Must be Going – Employee Engagement in a Recovering Economy

25 Apr

I was surfing YouTube the other day and somehow came across a clip from one of my favorite Marx Brothers movies, Animal Crackers.  The scene is Groucho Marx as Captain Spaulding returning from a long “out of location assignment” carried into the “home office”.  Groucho’s character has been off in a foreign land with none of the comforts of his normal living arrangement. Upon his return to a lavish but transparent party to welcome him home he breaks out in song as only Groucho can do….  

“Hello, I must be going,
I cannot stay, I came to say, I must be going.
I’m glad I came, but just the same I must be going.
I’ll stay a week or two,
I’ll stay the summer thru,
But I am telling you,
I must be going.”

That humorous scene from Animal Crackers (circa 1930) started me thinking this could soon be the outcome for some employers.  Employees will return from an arduous project or assignment, and because they have not felt engaged with their company, will quickly decide that they cannot stay and “must be going”, likely to a competitor.  For those too young to recall this scene (that ultimately become Groucho’s theme song), here’s a short YouTube version.

The past two plus years of economic troubles have created a perception that companies needn’t worry about employee turnover and retention. The current thinking in some companies suggests that because of layoffs and downsizing all around, employees have stepped up, absorbed additional duties, and are satisfied with just having a job.  Recent articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal suggest that within the general employed population, there exists a desire to find other employment. These reports are reinforced with a survey by the human resource consulting firm Hewitt, which reported 50 percent of the U.S. workforce will “consider” or “actively look for” other employment as soon as the economy improves.  I’ve been on other webinars that suggest the number is far north of 50%. 

It doesn’t have to be this way.  I believe that enlightened corporate leaders emerge in times of economic distress.  Any corporate manager (note that I didn’t use the term leader) that believes that their employees are fungible assets and neglects the chance to engage them as the fabric of client satisfaction and revenue realization in tough times is short-sighted and creates an opportunity for a competitor with better employee engagement practices to leap-frog them in their industry.  

There are many things that an enlightened corporate leader can do to continue to engage their staff that has little corporate investment and here is a short list of a few

  • Communicating the company’s strategy and goals and providing a monthly dashboard for general distribution is a good first step. 
  • A sense of community makes a difference. Mitchell, Holtom, Lee, Sablunski, and Erez found that employees stay at jobs when they feel a sense of fit and connection with their coworkers, job, organization, and community.
  • Recognition for work and results well done is an opportunity to celebrate with the entire team and others not on the team for them to see what success looks like and create a yearning to be the next team recognized.
  • Development plans with teeth that support learning and development that can be leveraged for both greater client billings and individual career growth 

Employee engagement in times of economic uncertainty can demonstrate the company’s commitment to treat their employees as individuals and not simply fungible assets.  The marginal added cost of training and the no-cost communication from leadership teams can help to maintain the company’s most precious resource, their people.

Absent this behavior, some employers might be soon hearing…” Hello, I Must be Going” sometime soon.


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