Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Employee engagement: a matter of justice?

When it comes to employee engagement a question I have heard asked more than once is: "what do we want our engagement to achieve?". Because engagement seems to mean a variety of different things to different people, I came around to accepting the question has some merit - even though I believed the people asking it were approaching the rationale and need for communication from the wrong angle.

Generally speaking, when you break it down, organisations in the US and Europe want to improve employee engagement in order to increase employee performance, as there is evidence that shows an engaged workforce ultimately delivers better results which in turn enhances a company's bottom line. Before today I had not really considered that the desired outcomes from employee engagement in organisations elsewhere in the world might be somewhat different.

But now, having read this op-ed in the Economic Times of India, penned by Tata Executive Director, R Gopalakrishnan, I can see a rather different motivation for a focus on engagement based on the Indian philiosophical concepts of Niti  (bringing about better justice) and Nyaya (preventing injustice). Gopalakrishnan's focus here is squarely on the need to pursue corporate policies humanely. When you think about it, this is deep stuff. I cannot remember ever hearing language like this used by executives:

Prevention of injustice is very different from pursuit of perfect justice. They are two sides of the same coin, but their value perception is different. So far as the Indian legislative framework is concerned, laws pertaining to worker relations have for long needed to be updated. Labour reforms have been widely discussed, but the subject remains on the pending agenda.

However, at the firm level, managers can act on remedying the nyaya perceived by the employees in the employee-employer relation; its practice can be modernised by forward-looking managements. This requires special effort by company leaders.
I wonder if the concept of justice ever overtly crosses the minds of communicators and executives in the west when focusing on employee engagement. It may be that in many organisations the concept of justice is an ever present if unspoken factor in employee engagement.

In seeking ever more innovative ways of engaging with employees, could there be an opportunity here for organisations and communicators to take justice and make it a prominent and visible plank in their engagement strategies? Or would such language and philiosophical depth feel out of place and make people somewhat uncomfortable in our boardrooms and communications departments? Maybe that would be a good thing...


Mike Klein said...

Even as a fairly liberal-minded internal communication pro who seeks greater transparency and a greater emphasis on common purpose as drivers of "engagement", I bristle at the injection of the concept of "justice" into the mix.

The first question raised when 'justice' is introduced is "What is just?" The second is "Who decides?".

If the result is simply an agreement between the enterprise and its stakeholders, why couch it in additional moral baggage? And if it implies supplication to some other moral authority, why risk it, unless such authority's certification of the "justice" of an agreement can also serve as a useful endorsement?

Tony said...

I hoped my post would spark a reaction! You have certainly articulated most of my thinking on the subject, Mike.

It was such an interesting concept I could not resist writing about it.

One question I would ask back to you is this. If adding justice to the mix is somewhat inappropriate, would it not also be inappropriate for any company to expect its people to adopt and advocate its political standpoint?

Mike Klein said...

Not at all, Tony--provided that the organisation can articulate a bullet-proof link between the company's political requirements and the company's business requirements.

It's one thing to be a family owned company and for the family to have a specific ideological agenda that may or may not line up with the views of most staff.

It's quite another to be in a carbon-intensive industry that Greenpeace considers "discretionary".

In such cases, the paradigms of traditional internal, corporate and political communication are about to get turned on their heads...making this an exciting time to be a practitioner...

Tony said...

Political belief is an intensely private matter. It is no more the business of an employer to expect staff to toe the company's chosen political line than it is for an employer to mandate a particular sexual morality.

Politicians and corporations have no right to legislate what people can think. We would have a totalitarian society if employers limited their recruitment only to those who held a particular political ideology.

I am sure there are some people who would like the paradigms of traditional internal and corporate communication to be turned on their heads, because it would advance their private political views. I'm not one of them. I am disturbed, not excited, by the idea of corporate communication being turned into political thought control.

What is 'right'? Who decides? Government and corporations should not only stay out of our bedrooms, they should stay out of our minds too.

Mike Klein said...

Appreciate the intensity of your response--and I do plead guilty to to wanting to see greater convergence between political, social, and business communication.

But the reality of the current situation--where whole industries are under unprecedented political and regulatory threat--gives those businesses targeted little choice.

Defensive old-school PR and IR strategies focusing on City reporters (and their equivalents elsewhere) aren't likely to work against an opposition which has its strength at the grass-roots and can influence, undermine, and extract information from employees with impunity.

Moreover, companies have the right to nurture, promote and empower likeminded people--and have already been doing so under the rubric of "brand alignment", albeit without an explicit political context. Organizing efforts to mobilize employees in campaigns that are clearly identified as job-saving are also often highly successful.

Your objections are principled, but the current reality is scary. Not engaging employees in those political processes crucial to retaining their jobs may consign some businesses to being dismantled solely on principle.


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