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Inspired Protagonist

The 4 essential practices to engage employees

We waste $450 to $550 billion a year by failing to get employees more involved in their work. Here’s why sustainability can be the secret missing ingredient.

According to Gallup’s most recent research, in the United States, active employee disengagement costs $450 billion to $550 billion per year.

Globally, "only 13 percent of all employees across 142 countries worldwide are engaged in their jobs — that is, they are emotionally invested in and focused on creating value for their organizations every day. Actively disengaged workers continue to outnumber engaged employees at a rate of nearly 2-to-1."

And actively disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish. Actively disengaged employees are more or less out to damage their company. They monopolize managers’ time; have more on-the-job accidents; account for more quality defects; contribute to "shrinkage," as theft is called; are sicker; miss more days; and quit at a higher rate than engaged employees do. Whatever the engaged do — such as solving problems, innovating and creating new customers — the actively disengaged try to undo.

Among those who work for an employer in the United States and Canada, 29 percent are engaged in their jobs, while 54 percent are not engaged and 18 percent are actively disengaged. The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is 1.6-to-1 — the highest among all regions worldwide.

Companies that effectively engage their employees in meaningful sustainability efforts experience dramatically lower turnover rates, greater productivity and increased rates of innovation.

Pretty depressing. And it’s so common and widespread that most companies all too readily accept this dysfunction as commonplace. They fail to hold leaders and managers accountable and accept poor levels of performance with no repercussions.

If you ever wondered about the strategic advantages of sustainable, responsible, values-based businesses — look no further. Although responsible business doesn’t guarantee employee engagement, managers and leaders must make sure that they connect the firm’s commitment to sustainable, responsible business to each and every employee. This must happen at all levels of the company, at every opportunity, all the time.

What are the concrete benefits of engaged workers? Organizations in Gallup’s Client Database with an average of 9.3 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee in 2010 to 2011 "experienced 147 percent higher earnings per share compared with their competition in 2011 to 2012."

My personal experience over the last 2.5 decades is that companies that effectively engage their employees in meaningful sustainability efforts experience dramatically lower turnover rates, greater productivity and increased rates of innovation. This stands to reason as deep involvement in sustainability engages staff on numerous levels beyond generating a paycheck; sustainable businesses engage the hearts, minds and passions in meaningful purpose.

How to make that happen? One solution is We Spire, a company where I’ve served as a director, that develops enterprise employee engagement technology that uses dynamic content, social levers and gamification to capture people’s imagination and produce meaningful results both in the workplace and at home. We Spire enables individuals and entire organizations to drive measurable, positive impact in areas of sustainability, volunteering, health and wellness, and corporate citizenship.

A recent report by Ceres found that a focus on sustainability can become a recruiting tool of sorts. And while only a small sliver of companies set the pace in this area, 40 percent of those surveyed in 2014 reported aiming to engage employees on sustainability, a rise from 30 percent in 2012.

To reap the benefits, sustainable businesses must ensure they integrate deep employee engagement to their sustainability practices. What does that look like? Gallup believes these our key practices are essential:

1. Strategy and leadership philosophy

Although more businesses are beginning to recognize the central role of employee engagement, many senior managers still fail to ensure engagement is deeply connected to the company’s mission and growth strategy.

The best leaders understand that there is an emotional undercurrent to everything they do, which affects how they conduct business every day. They take a strategic approach to engaging leadership teams and then ensure it cascades through the ranks of all managers to employees on the front lines.

This is not about surveys from human resources or memos from the CEO. It’s about conversation and dialogue. It’s part of the core business strategy.

2. Accountability and performance

Highly engaged organizations embed engagement into managers’ balanced scorecards and use it as performance evaluation criteria. The most engaged organizations infuse engagement into their culture through the tone their leadership sets and the way employees and managers do their work.

3. Communication

Leaders in the best organizations find ways to communicate engagement’s impact on business performance throughout the year and share engagement tools and best practices within the organization.

4. Development and ongoing learning opportunities

The world’s best performing organizations start engaging employees from the minute they show up on the first day. These organizations have well-defined, thorough and ongoing employee development programs. They take personal and professional development seriously.

As we face ever-increasing challenges, both social and environmental, business can’t afford not to fully harness its human resource. Imagine how far an extra $450 to $550 billion a year would go.

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