Friday, 2 October 2009

Unacceptable politicisation of employee engagement

People Management magazine carries a story about an extraordinary claim, by a co-author of a government commissioned review, that better employee engagement at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) could have prevented the near-collapse of the bank. The substance of the intervention risks making the role of the internal communicator or employee engagement manager more difficult in the future. The story explains:

Nita Clarke, joint author of the MacLeod review, told delegates at a fringe event that while two years ago RBS had “some good things to say about engaging employees”, some senior strategists were far from engaged. “It was a very small group of people at the very top who were not engaged who had hijacked the investment and capital decisions. Perhaps the world would have been a different place if they had [been engaged],” she said.
It is a quite incredible claim. The story also reports that:
Lord Young, parliamentary under-secretary for business, innovation and skills, added that better employee engagement could have stopped “people just pursuing profit without thinking about sustainable growth”.
Nita Clarke may be director of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA), but prior to that she spent six years working in 10 Downing Street for Tony Blair as an assistant political secretary advising the PM on trade unions. Before that, Ms Clarke worked for the Unison trade union. She is married to Stephen Benn, eldest son of Labour firebrand, Tony Benn. Ms Clarke's daughter, Emily, is the Labour candidate for East Worthing and Shoreham at the next general election. She is a political animal of the first order and her assertions are politically motivated.

The published comments go way beyond the brief of examining how engagement with staff can improve productivity. They represent an attempt to write a wholly new definition of employee engagement. The commonly understood definitions of employee engagement can be read here.

To follow Ms Clarke and Lord Young's arguments to their logical conclusion, their perception of employee engagement is a dialogue where the senior leaders of an organisation seek approval from employees for the company's strategy, and employees have the opportunity to challenge the direction charted by the leadership. It also presumes the employees would have dissented from a strategy that was intended to increase the performance and profitability of the organisation. It will be interesting to see if the full review provides any evidence for this.

Regardless, it is not any definition of employee engagement that I'm familiar with. It is not about engagement as we know it, but is an unwelcome political intrusion (regardless of the political stripe) into business and an effort to tell companies how they should organise themselves. Therein resides a ticking timebomb for communicators and employee engagement specialists.

Gaining the trust of senior leaders in an organisation can be difficult at the best of times. Work we do to influence and counsel leaders and decision makers, and to facilitate effective two-way communication, will only be made harder if business leaders perceive our efforts to be grounded in a politically motivated plan to weaken the leadership's grip on the strategic direction of the organisation and transfer a portion of control to employees.

Ms Clarke and Lord Young's comments represent an unhelpful attempt to make a workplace an openly party political environment by hijacking employee engagement issues for party political ends. Politicians of all parties, and their proxies in various agencies and organisations, should abandon any designs they have on politicising this essential form of communication. They risk doing more harm than good.


Mike Klein said...

Interesting thoughts. I have some alternative definitions of engagement, which I've posted at, which move it out of a linear engaged-vs-non-engaged line of discussion.

As far as the politicisation of engagement you decry here, I see two different angles. One--in a regulated industry (and industries are likely to become far more intimately regulated in the aftermath of Copenhagen), the regulator has some right to question and challenge management practices within those industries.

Two--and more interesting--employee engagement is likely to need to shift from simple harnessing of narrowly defined "discretionary effort" towards the enlistment of employees as ambassadors and political advocates on behalf of their companies and industries.

This redirection will fundamentally change the internal communications industry, as well as requiring substantial adjustments to labor-management relations approaches and indeed, to the way work is organized as well.

(BTW--noticed Liam's comment about your political bent; I'm an IC pro with 10 years of political consultancy under my wings beforehand. You can find my blog at

Tony said...

Thanks for the link Mike. I will pop over for a read.

Thanks also for your interesting thoughts on possible future changes to IC in the future.

At the very basic level many people would see a shift such as the one you describe as work life intruding on personal opinion and thinking. I think many would (rightly) resist becoming the embodiment of political activism on behalf of their companies. It would cross the line of acceptability.

I know many people who work for firms because they need a job, but who disagree with political affiliations the firms have as a result of the leanings of board members or owners.


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