When Does Employee Engagement Really Start?

Annamarie Lang Blog

It is hard to go a single day working in the human capital field without getting into a heated discussion about employee engagement.

How important it is for productivity. How it is essential in the struggle to recruit and retain the best talent. How it is a critical ingredient in organizational success.

But when does employee engagement start? Many organizations really have little idea when to start cultivating engaged employees. They think of engagement initiatives as something that is tied to a survey that is sent periodically to their employees, rather than something that should be addressed as a part of the onboarding process.

In actual fact, the battle for the hearts and minds of your employees actually begins at the hiring stage. This is where prospective employees will form their opinions about your organization and its culture. Still, once you hire someone, what do you do next to ensure they are fully engaged?

To explain, I’d like to reflect on the past 90 days in my own career.

In September, I joined Lee Hecht Harrison as a senior vice president of employee engagement. It was a pretty big change for me; I’d be working at home for the first time in my working life. That was a significant departure from my previous job, where I worked in a fully appointed corporate headquarters with all of the buzz and structure that entails.

Working away from the mother ship as I was, and for a new organization to boot, it would have been very easy for me to feel isolated from my new employer. Many of us have been in this situation before: you start a new job and for the first few weeks or months, you spend a lot of time with nothing to do, feeling useless and wondering if you’ve made a mistake in accepting the job.

I felt that way a bit. Fortunately for me, LHH made my engagement a full-time job.

Over the first two weeks of my employment with LHH – while I was going through all of the typical HR indoctrination – my direct manager arranged a series of mini interviews for me with various key people in the company. I was literally given access to 50 different people in the company that helped me understand their roles and how they would interact with mine.

The mini interviews helped expand my internal network. When I finally attended meetings at the home office, I already knew most of the people in the room because I had spoken to them. That alone helped me establish relationships that might have taken years to develop in another organization.

These interviews included time to talk to my boss’ boss, someone who could further articulate for me exactly what my role in the organization was, and the organization’s expectations and vision of my area of expertise. This was a great source of comfort; even though there was still a lot of stress from joining a new organization, I knew exactly what I had to do to succeed.

On an ongoing basis, I met once a week with my boss to go over my role and the challenges I needed to tackle first. This was also an opportunity for me to ask questions and troubleshoot any concerns.  As well, my boss assigned me a person on our team to help me with various administrative challenges:  How do I order business cards?  Where could I get a computer?  How quickly could I get logged into various internal tools? It was an incredible source of comfort – an opportunity to meet with another person regularly to answer all my questions and reiterate expectations.

As I approach my 90-day mark with LHH, a number of important points have crystallized for me:

It’s never too early to start. Employee engagement must start before the new employee walks in the door. How will the leader and team of the new employee be involved?  There’s no use waiting for someone “to get their feet wet” before exposing them to an onboarding program that will move them to being productive faster. It has to start at the moment of onboarding, and continue through their employment.

Boilerplate engagement strategies don’t work. Everyone is different and every job is different. Although you can absolutely apply standard approaches, we all need some specialized engagement strategies that take into account variations in job description, geographic location, stage of career, status and duties. In employee engagement, one size does not fit all.

Face to face is better than virtual. It’s critically important that new employees be given face time with the people who can answer all their questions. A handout with answers to “Frequently Asked Questions” or the company handbook does not provide much comfort to people starting out a new career. Regular, face-to-face meetings with key people will make new employees feel that their concerns are important. More importantly, it will provide them with the answers to their questions, not someone else’s FAQs.

A 2013 Aberdeen study that noted 90% of organizations believe that new employees make the decision to stay or go in their first year. As I approach the end of my first 90 days and start on my journey as LHH’s employee engagement practice leader, I have come to appreciate the importance of starting with a thoughtful onboarding experience.

You have one opportunity to make a positive impression that will create true employee engagement.

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