If you have been following the news in the UK recently, you’ll have noticed that one of the few areas of light relief has been the ill-fated attempt by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to engage with the populace by asking them to name their latest research craft. Doubtless they believed participants would choose something suitably respectful, maybe drawing on one of the greats of maritime or polar exploration. Only that’s not how it panned out. In their ill-fated attempt to at public engagement, they ended up with some joker nominating the name “Boaty McBoatface” and the vast majority of wags on the Web jumping behind the idea. The British public recognise a blatant attempt at marketing and engagement and responds the only way they know – by making a joke of it.
The adventures of Boaty McBoatface should act as a warning to anyone involved in activities referred to as “engagement”, including employee engagement. If employee engagement research is viewed as an exercise in business self-interest rather than a genuine desire to impact on the quality of work experience, it’s going to be met with derision by many. If employees don’t feel their opinions are actually valued, it exacerbates the issues it is attempting to improve. The world is becoming cynical of what can appear to be marketing-driven campaigns no matter where these efforts are focused.
I will always remember a focus group I did at an organisation whose staff had recently been involved with a reality TV show. To protect the innocent (and my career), I’m going to keep it as vague as possible, but the context was that we were looking at the impact of their TV appearance on their perception of the employment experience. If you’re offended by bad language, I apologise in advance but there’s no point in sugar coating it.
Researcher: How did the experience affect your relationship with your colleagues?
Participant A: It was great. It really brought us together and gave us a chance to really get to know people in other parts of the business that we hadn’t had much contact with before or who at times were in conflict with.
Researcher: And how do you all feel about your company now?
Participant B: The same as I ever did – a complete and utter shambles. Every few years a new HR director comes in, they kick off a load of surveys and focus groups about what it’s like to work here and then you never hear anything back and nothing changes. It’s total bollocks.
(several nod in agreement)
Now the above is a worst case scenario, but it supports my point that we aren’t playing some covert game of business strategy whose purpose is unknown to participants. We are asking thinking, feeling human beings to share their experiences in the hope that it leads to demonstrable improvements. Done well, employee feedback exercises are terrific but they have to be followed through. With decent, respectful research, staff feel valued and part of a greater whole; they feel they have made a worthy contribution. Yet so many organisations don’t even appear to feel the need to thank participants for their help, let alone allow them to know the outcomes of their input. In time, a focus group becomes something that gets staff off the shop floor or out of the office for a few hours with no hope of it practically achieving anything.
And we know what Participant B says about that.