Getting employee engagement on your CEO's agenda

Written by
Nigel Purse

21 Apr 2017

21 Apr 2017 • by Nigel Purse

We've all been there. As an HR leader, you know that employee engagement needs to be firmly on the CEO's agenda if anything meaningful is going to happen. Maybe you're trying to make the case to repeat your employee engagement survey, or even to run one for the first time but it's the wrong time: the business is going through another change or re-structure process; market conditions are shifting unfavourably; world events are causing uncertainty over hiring and investment and the economy is being affected by elections; There are a multitude of competing business priorities.

Now seems like the worst time for your CEO and board to be going out to gather data on the engagement of employees. You can almost  guess what the results will be, and if you're repeating the process you fear they could be worse than last time.

Let's face it: maybe right now you won't get employee engagement onto the CEO's agenda. And if it is already there, perhaps you're benefiting from a legacy where caring about engagement is part of the organisation's DNA and heritage. If you do feel strongly that employee engagement is worth pushing up the agenda, here are three essential steps you can take to give you the best possible chance of getting board members and your CEO to sit up and take notice:

  1. Ensure you can explain a compelling, rational, economic business case for driving employee engagement.
  2. Go beyond the rational business case to appeal to your CEOs emotional triggers.
  3. Provide the CEO with some simple, actionable steps that make it easy for them (and you) to make progress.

In this series of three articles we will go into detail about each step, providing you with evidence, ideas and tips that will equip you to have a productive discussion with your CEO that will place employee engagement at the front of their minds.

Step 1: Present a compelling business case

Make sure you can clearly explain the business case for paying attention to employee engagement now, and what can be done to improve it. The facts need to be at your fingertips, and you need to know the arguments inside out. If you aren't prepared to argue the case with authority and data, you won't get past first base in persuading your Board and CEO to give it their attention. So, this step is about you, as an HR leader, becoming an expert on the subject -  it can't be delegated.

To start with you need to be able to explain the case for paying attention to employee engagement in terms of the wider business environment. One of the best sources of such data is the organisation Engage for Success, set up and led by David Macleod, author of the seminal government-backed report Nailing the Evidence. It found that across various research studies, in scores of countries and across multiple industry sectors, high levels of employee engagement have been consistently found to correlate with superior business performance.

For example, Kenexa found that companies  with engagement scores in the top quartile had twice the net profit and 18% higher productivity of those in the bottom quartile. Gallup's employee engagement study in 2012 is also a very useful resource, as is AON's 2014 Trends in Global Employee Engagement report.

Next, think about the specific aspects of business performance that matter to your Board and CEO right now: growth in top line revenue, margin improvement, returns to shareholders, innovation, quality, customer advocacy, staff attraction or retention, and so on. It is imperative that you link engagement data to the achievement of your organisation's business objectives -  unless an employee engagement initiative can directly contribute to these it is unlikely it will see the light. Search out the data that supports employee engagement impacting on those factors that are top of the strategic agenda, and the sector(s) most relevant to your own.

If you're making your business case for gathering data on employee engagement you need to know clearly in your own mind why you are doing it, and why it matters. You can guarantee that the CEO will ask why it is important that you are pushing for this now. Be resolute in your reasoning and have evidence at hand - whether that is staff attrition or recruitment numbers, budgets or notes from interviews.

If you are seeking to have engagement embedded more broadly into the businesses' strategy, it could be that you've reviewed the results of a recent employee survey and they have not been overly positive so you'd like to begin improvements immediately to prevent staff leaving, or it could be mounting anecdotal evidence from managers regarding morale, staff absence and productivity. On the other hand, while engagement may be good, you mayhave seen gaps where further improvements can be made.

David Macleod summed up elegantly why employee engagement is so important when   he wrote:

"Organisations embedding the enablers of employee engagement as the way they work have more chance of surviving in the new global economy, because they are building the future with, and around, their people. "