Why Is The UK More Enlightened About Employee Engagement?

This is a question that has nagged at me for well over a year. So, when I read “Engaging for Success”, a report commissioned by the UK Secretary of State, my idle curiosity turned to amazement and awe. Consider the forward by Rt Hon Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills:

A recession might seem an unusual time for such reflection – in fact, the opposite is the case. Because Britain’s economic recovery and its competitive strengths in a global economy will be built on strong, innovative companies and confident employees, there has never been a more important time to think about employee engagement in Britain. 

This 150+ page report was authored by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke. It is extensively researched, and offers fascinating insights and recommendations. What is most impressive, however, is that it focuses on the tangible and quantifiable business links between engaged employees and business success.

Here in the US, as a lonely traveler seeking to provide enlightenment to companies, I have led numerous brand engagement programs. This is not the same as “classic” engagement because instead of working with Human Resources, I work with Marketing or Corporate Communications, and the focus is on brand strategy and execution. Historically,  my clients have rarely wanted anything to do with Human Resources or their programs. The opposite is also true. Many large companies have established “employer brands” programs that focus on recruitment and retention–and ignore the external brand.

But I haven’t seen the kind of holistic perspective on engagement as expressed by MacLeod and Clarke here in the U.S. Lisa Wojtkowiak, who specializes in employee research for ORC, says that the most exciting statistical research is being done out of their London office. There is finally concrete support for the Sears service-profit chain model, with other companies showing similar correlations between engaged employees and greater profitability.

Why does the UK get it and U.S. companies do not? Here are some theories:

1. The intangible value of engaged employees is not well-understood or quantified by financial executives.

2. Human Resources and Marketing have rarely, if ever, partnered together. Each have their own models, budgets, programs, KPIs, and preferred vendors, and sharing may mean loss of the power inherent in owning data. (As I understand it, HR executives wield much more financial power in the UK).

3. In many UK corporations, there is an officer who is in charge of employee engagement, and this person has access to the CEO. In the US, similar roles tend to be put under Human Resources, with little power or budget.

4. Maybe the UK workforce is just less mobile than the U.S. It’s much harder to lay people off, and with a greater investment in long-term employees, it may heighten the need to develop active, meaningful engagement programs.

I think we may be at the tipping point here in the U.S., and look forward to more meaningful conversations with my clients in the future.








Filed under Employee Brand Engagement

3 responses to “Why Is The UK More Enlightened About Employee Engagement?

  1. Hi Carol

    Hope you are well and nice to see you’re still following the ‘engagement scene’ in the UK.
    I know we’ve debated this US plc v UK plc thing in the past and, despite MacLeod, I still see more similarities than differences.

    In response to your 4 theories:
    1. MacLeod identifies this as a key barrier to engagement in the UK, hence Recommendation 1: A national awareness campaign
    2. Functions are just as siloed in UK plc and HR budgets dwindle into insignificance against Marketing budgets. MacLeod is very HR focussed as I mention in my blog 16th July, the report mentions Brand 10 times compared to 298 references to HR. Amusingly, one of the references to Brand is the suggestion that HR needs to rebrand itself!
    3. Dedicated “engagement officer” roles are still rare, when such a role does exist they tend to work within HR and ‘own’ the engagement survey!
    4. You may have something here but I think it is influenced by historical perspective, not today’s reality. We sit between a rock and a hard place (Mainland Europe and North America) here on our little island. The influx of immigrant workers from Eastern Europe has driven an increased level of mobility in manual labour. The influence of the global economy that we almost all operate within has helped drive an insane level of mobility at the executive level. (Average tenures of executives are still being quoted as under 2 years and dropping)

    So here in the UK, we are still hoping for meaningful conversations with our clients and still waiting for the tipping point. We remain optimistic.

    “two nations divided by a common level of disengagement”

  2. Hi Carol,

    Having worked (with you in fact!) on both sides of the pond I think you are right. My observation is that intuitively UK and European leadership are marginally more willing to go on instinct or persuasive human argument, rather than “show me the data.” Also I’d suggest that UK/European branding tends to be more holistic than in the US.

    As Sean says, we get plenty of that too (maybe it’s a 51% – 49% majority if that makes sense). It’s more a gut feel. I can sit in a presentation with economists and actuaries and have an intelligent dialogue about emotional connection without them demanding I pull out data and figures and “drivers of employee engagement.” They get the concept and are more willing to take it as read that it matters and it works — as opposed to blowing half the budget on measuring it to see whether it matters and it works.

    I’m certainly seeing our branding projects almost invariably have brand engagement attached as opposed to “optional” — which is different from even 2 years ago …

    I’ve been away a while, though. And, I might be talking out my a*se…

    • carolparish

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for this. Unless you have spent a great deal of time consulting within the US, it is hard to appreciate the ongoing obsession with financial data. There are some exciting new techniques being developed–primarily in the UK, I would add–that are quite solid, but treated with skepticism at senior levels because they come from “suspect” sources, i.e., HR and Marketing. But we try to keep up the good fight.

      Enjoy your more enlightened clients! Hope we catch up over the pond.

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