It’s Complicated: Why Employee Engagement Isn’t Easy

At a time when the job market is tight and companies are scrambling to recruit – focused on retaining and developing their current business talent – employee engagement and happiness is not as complicated as it seems.

You might be one of those of cynics or maybe you just believe that all good things don’t come to those who wait, but to those who work their butts off. Maybe right now you are putting in 60 plus hours a week to meet your company’s forecasts or your boss’s expectations. You think you don’t have enough time or energy to focus on employee engagement, but you know that if you don’t, you will have to hire and replace your best workers. You can’t squeeze any time among the 25 conference calls you are sitting on this week with 3 of those you are leading.

Employers Are Broken

So you or your managers create some long-winded and complicated employee engagement program. Maybe HR leads the charge on this one. They add some sort of gamification and badging system. Jimmy from engineering wants to add a keg to the break room on Fridays. His team of engineers made a special request. Grown adults debate over alcohol at the office, foosball in the breakroom and if they should add add new manager training. Eight months later nothing has changed except the fact that you caught engineering with flasks at their desks but looked the other way.

Employee Recognition Saves Relationships Drives Engagement & Productivity

The secret sauce is recognition. You just have to recognize your people. Tell them that you appreciate them. Tell them they knocked it out of the park on the last project. Employees just simply want recognition. They don’t always need all that flashy stuff to keep them engaged, happy and working for your company.


Thirty-seven percent of employees simply want recognition. This data comes to us from O.C. Tanner Company. They just want to be told, “Great job!” This is followed closely by employees who simply want nothing in return. I find that hard to believe. Recognition and engagement is a short term thing. You can be highly engaged one moment, and ready to jump ship to a competitor 2 hours later thanks to that marathon conference call you couldn’t escape. I’m certain the 13% who wanted nothing in return are either your best high performers, or just having a great workday.

I’ve said before that happiness at work isn’t the manager’s responsibility. A person’s career is quite long, and it’s likely the time we spend at our current employer is a small stop on the career path. Engagement is fluid and recognition is a short term solution. What needs to happen is that employees and managers build a relationship, have a conversation, develop an understanding and treat each other as equals like in a marriage. This is the only way to lower your company’s divorce rate.

As I mentioned, employee recognition seems like it offers short term benefits. It’s a lot like forgetting to tell your partner you appreciate them, but you still tell them you love them because that’s what people do in a committed relationship. And then one day you wake up and realize the love there is gone. It seems and feels sudden when you end the relationship. Recognition and appreciation wasn’t the reason for the end of your relationship. It’s just something that happened. Maybe the employer got too comfortable with their workforce or the employee just assumed that the boss quit caring.

The Hookup Culture is to Blame for High Employee Turnover

We date a lot during our career. Sometimes we commit, but most often we don’t see the commitment from our partner in the relationship, so we leave for greener pastures because it’s so easy. Maybe we say it’s about the money because we’d all like more of that, but it started with something small, like a simple thank you, great job, or I appreciate you. Employers and employees need to get back to basics in order to build, engage and appreciate one another. The job market has become a lot like Tinder. Employees can swipe right or left in this competitive market to find a new suitor. HR tech company Hired even offers candidates 10 job offers in 10 minutes. But hiring is long and just plain crazy. Over 50% of candidates get no update after they apply – and candidates want feedback. We need to know someone is swiping left on us, candidate or employer alike.

Should We Swipe Right, Left or Commit?

We need to start with recognition and then build on that relationship. Otherwise, we will continue to fail at relationships – but maybe that’s what our employees want nothing but a string of casual encounters. If that’s the case, that is completely fine, but it’s important the employer develop a workforce and staffing plan in order to retain and develop those committed employees. Most importantly, employees need to do the same.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell is the founder of Workology, a digital resource that reaches more than a half million HR and workplace leaders each month and host of the Workology Podcast. Jessica lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, daughter, and an assortment of furry family members.

Reader Interactions


  1. Guilherme Daurte says

    Thank you for sharing your great insights. I would like to add one of the things we’ve suffer inside our own company due to growth pains! When we grow fast we experienced a lack of recognition and the decrease in celebrating daily victories due to the great focus on work. Recognition is key to motivation and engagement. There are a lot of tools to use when it comes to employee public recognition: Tap My Back is a very straightforward app and focus only on public recognition and praise.

    Hope you take a look at our solution for employee engagement and staff motivation and start giving recognition in seconds and with 3 simple steps.

    Build stronger teams –


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