Engagement lifecycle

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Written by Garry Cattermole on 1 July 2014 in Features

Garry Cattermole suggests some ways to retain the best in your organisation

Engagement starts long before an employee becomes an employee. A deeper understanding and insight into how engagement peaks and troughs throughout the employment life cycle can assist with employee engagement strategies and allow organisations to target their efforts in the most appropriate and timely places.

Is your recruitment process over promising?

The journey of employee engagement starts when someone chooses to join your organisation. Our research shows that engagement levels are at their highest during the interview and induction processes.

When someone decides to apply for a job, on average it is because they ‘want’ to work for your organisation, there is ‘something’ about it that entices them. This may be, for example, the role, the work, the benefits, the ethos, the values, or the brand.

The issue facing many organisations is one of over promising during this stage. Then if the reality of working for the organisation doesn’t meet the expectations raised this is when we see engagement levels drop and drop significantly. In fact, if you are seeing a large swathes of employees leaving within the first three to six months you may well have an expectation ‘gap’ as described above.

We have worked with a number of organisations where this issue is not organisation wide but within a specific group or department, where new recruits fail to remain in their post long term. High staff turnover in specific areas may point to a number of issues, not in the least a failure at the recruitment stage to understand the role requirements, and therefore either advertise the role correctly and/or match the right personal skills and qualities to the role.

Those organisations that invest in ensuring that not only are they recruiting the right people from a technical perspective but also, arguably more importantly, from a ‘fit’ perspective invariably had higher levels of engagement during and after the recruitment process. Here the organisations are making use of the plethora of profiling and personality testing or investigations available during the recruitment process. The tool is not so important here as perhaps the realisation that during the recruitment process the decision makers have a responsibility to consider how the new recruit sits within the organisation. The recruit needs to offer not only the appropriate set of competencies and skills, but have personal qualities that will help fulfil the role, fit within the team and indeed fit within the organisation (and its values and culture). The first phase of the recruitment process therefore needs to be a clear understanding and definition of these needs.

Those organisations that utilised these or similar processes and techniques, invariably have higher levels of engagement during and after the recruitment process.

Where there isn’t a gap between the expectations raised at recruitment and the actual experience or the gap is small, engagement levels tend to remain high during the first one to two years of employment.

Look at your employee branding, recruitment and on-boarding processes.  How are you positioning both the role and the organisation throughout these stages?  Is there a gap between what you are portraying and the reality of working life within the organisation?

When is the honeymoon period over?

Findings from our ‘joiners’ research shows that engagement levels within a work environment are typically at their highest (in the upper quartile) during the first 24 months of employment.

We know from verbatim feedback during focus group, workshop and survey work that employees are really enjoying their work, the challenge of a new position and working within a new organisation and really value meeting and working with new people. There is a real sense of expectation about the role, work and organisation they are working for at this stage. We also find that during the early stages of employment people are more likely to volunteer their time for work and projects outside their remit, thus immersing themselves more in the culture and working practices of an organisation.

However, we have found that one of the major reasons for low engagement levels at this stage can be where new employees are ‘thrown in at the deep end’ without the right level of support from colleagues or managers.  While autonomy and authority to choose how one does on’es work is an important aspect of employee engagement, leaving new recruits completely on their own can quickly disengage them.

As an organisation, ensure that you make the most of your new recruits, the talents, skills and different ways of working that they bring to the organisation.  While also ensuring that throughout the early period of a new employee’s tenure (the first three months especially) they are supported by the organisation, their line manager and colleagues.

The natural dip in employee engagement

We have consistently found that engagement levels naturally start to drop and can be at their lowest between the two- to five-year job tenure periods.

While the level of drop varies from organisation to organisation, it is not uncommon to see engagement scores drop after two years’ service, on average, by 11 percentage points.

Interestingly, this coincides with the average length of time a person stays in a role (nowadays). Time in role currently stands at around the four-year mark (although this does vary depending on which figures you look at). It will not be a surprise to see that lower engagement levels coincided with the average length of stay in job!

One regular piece of feedback we receive from those with this level of service is that they have been ‘ground down’ into the working practices or traditions of the organisation, they have become ‘assimilated’.  Whereby new recruits look to bring new and fresh ideas, those with longer service appear resigned to the fact that their organisations seem less likely to look for new ways of working, in fact it is more likely they will say ‘this is the way we do things around here…’.  This feeling can be particularly disengaging for employees.

We have found that those organisations that have managed to keep this drop to a minimum share some common approaches. Typically, they encourage their employees to take on roles and responsibilities outside of their normal job description. For example, it might be project work, supporting projects outside of work (for example to care for the community or environment), secondments or even moving into a new role to cover for maternity or sick leave. Improving the scope of the role appears to keep engagement levels at a higher point.

Clearly, if possible within your organisation, ensure that your employees have an opportunity to stretch themselves and get involved in different aspects of the organisation. This keeps employee engagement levels up, especially during this critical phase of the life cycle of employee engagement.

However, ask yourself does your organisation bring in new talent and then, culturally, put up barriers to implementing new ideas or restrict innovation? 

Employee engagement rebounds

As a person’s stay increases within an organisation their levels of engagement starts to increase again. In fact, those with more than 10 years’ service tend to be more engaged than those with two to five years’ service.

The feedback from this group is that, to a degree, they have been there, seen it, done it and have the t-shirt. In a nice way, they have been around the block.  They are very comfortable with the culture of the organisation, the way it works and how they fit into and contribute to the organisation.

It is fair to say that, typically, those with this length of service are in more senior roles. We do find that there is a correlation between length of service and seniority for employee engagement.

However, those organisations with a flatter management structure coupled with employees with long levels of tenure do not always fit with this pattern. A flat management structure and long service can create a problem of ‘dead man’s shoes’. In terms of traditional career development this can be a real issue if not managed correctly. While we don’t advocate creating roles for the sake of it, we are seeing organisations take a much more pragmatic view to development. In that they look to develop their people regardless of whether their career is within or outside of the organisation.  They take the view that if a person leaves for a better role that isn’t available internally, it is a success story that should be celebrated. Moreover, we see those that do leave are inherently more likely to return to the same organisation at a later date in a more senior position as a direct result of the career development they received in the first instance.

Dear John, I’m leaving you because…

Levels of engagement actually wildly fluctuate at the leaving stage, although they are typically, and as you would expect, lower than those that continue to work in an organisation.

As part of our leavers profiling we help organisations identify reasons for leaving, getting under the skin of the more traditional exit interview by using a mix of surveys, one to one interviews and discussions using external facilitators.

The key word above is external. I don’t think I am making a remarkable revelation when I say that the reasons given for leaving during an internally run exit interview are markedly different from those that are given during an externally facilitated discussion. It will also probably not come as a surprise to hear that pay (and benefits) is the main reason given during an internal exit interview for leaving, whereas management style/ behaviours comes out the highest during an externally facilitated discussion.

Have you reviewed how you go about collecting information from those leaving your organisation, how valid it is, what is done with the information collected?

Finally, it is worth noting that on average, 40 per cent of leavers would take a job in the organisation in the future, if the situation was right.

And this leads us to the last stage in the life cycle of engagement...

I’ll be back

Sometimes the grass isn’t greener, one client consistently sees a large number of those that leave the organisation (their attrition levels are around 11 per cent) come back to the organisation. They have found out that the organisation they left wasn’t so bad after all!

What our research shows here is that engagement levels from this group are not only high but remain high. It is worth considering how your organisation stays in touch with its talented leavers.

The future life cycle

We are seeing a trend within organisations where they are becoming increasingly sophisticated in the ways in which they analyse and compare data from across the organisation. Engagement data is being incorporated onto management dashboards where the organisation and departmental managers can compare levels of engagement with absence, staff turnover, sales and customer service data. It is these levels of cross comparison and communication within organisations that has led to the increased use of the net promoter score, as a measure of employee advocacy.

The net promoter score is a customer loyalty metric. It measures the loyalty that exists between a provider and a consumer. Consumers respond to the following on a 0-10 point scale: How likely is it that you would recommend our company/product/service to a friend or colleague? Promoters are those who respond with a score of 9 or 10 and are considered loyal enthusiasts. Detractors are those who respond with a score of 0 to 6 – unhappy customers. Scores of 7 and 8 are ignored. The score is calculated by subtracting the percentage of customers who are Detractors from the percentage of customers who are Promoters.

We have worked with a number of organisations to implement similar technique to measure employee loyalty, allowing them to cross compare consumers and employee ratings of the brand; as well as track advocacy across business groups and compare with levels of engagement and so on. Our initial research shows that both employees’ rating of the brand and the organisation as a place to work follow a similar pattern to the engagement levels throughout the length of service.

However, advocacy of the organisation as a place to work starts out much higher, as high as 100 per cent at recruitment and falls much lower during the first five years of employment, before beginning to increase. Advocacy of the brand or service, starts high and falls during the first five years before showing an increase. However, the level change tends to differ significantly between organisations, departments and levels within an organisation.

Understanding the changes in engagement levels and how employees interact with their organisation’s brand throughout their tenure is a useful tool. Think about each of the key touch points with employees, what their expectations may be at that time. Hopefully this insight will have a positive impact on your interactions.

Finally, ask yourself what does your organisation seek to understand from its employees and what does it do with the feedback?

About the author

Garry Cattermole is a co-founder and director of The Survey Initiative and over the past six years has focused on helping organisations understand their employees' engagement. To find out more, visit www.surveyinitiative.co.uk



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