“It’s happening again.” Tony* shifted his weight from one bright white Nike to the other while he waited patiently for my attention. I finished the sentence I was typing and looked up at him.
“The boogers are back.” Tony looked exhausted from an internal wrestling match: do I deal with this myself, or do I tell her about it? I raised an eyebrow to bridge the chasm of silence between us while I figured out what to do.
“Okay. Thanks for bringing this to me.” I proceeded to ask him the necessary questions, gauging the frequency and severity of recent strikes by the Booger Bandit by Tony’s answers. After a five-minute conversation and some less-than-desirable photographic evidence, Tony returned to the IT room and I commenced to write a series of emails.
As an Employee Engagement Manager—and the first in my role at a company experiencing quite a few growing pains—I am confronted by situations that vary drastically in type, scope, and hilarity. The Booger Bandit, an unidentified employee who passes the time leaving snail trails of mucus above the urinals in the men’s room, represents one such situation. While the act itself is, to say the least, unappetizing, it’s my job to figure out the “why” behind the behavior; once the reasoning is determined, then I craft a plan of action. Is it rooted in a lack of respect for our physical office space? Before we moved from our dingy single-floor office space in Indianapolis’ industrial district to our posh new building downtown, we all thought that was the case. But when, after a brief hiatus, the Bandit struck the brand-new tile in the new office’s pristine restroom, I had to begin considering other diagnoses. Could the nasty habit be a veiled commentary on office politics? Perhaps. Is it a cry for a strategically-placed Kleenex box? Maybe. Is it one behavior in a set of many displayed by a person who perhaps should not be employed with us? Potentially. Only through careful diagnostics and unwavering compassion can one know.
Employee Engagement is a growing and incredibly elastic subset of Human Resources professionals. Although the job description of an Employee Engagement manager changes from company to company, our main purpose is to keep a company’s culture healthy. As the line between work and home life, for many, becomes a quickly-dissipating contrail, it is now more important than ever to ensure that the workplace is a balanced, supportive, engaging, and nurturing environment for employees—particularly if companies want to expand. The language used to talk about employee engagement suggests its inextricability from health and healthcare: to check morale, we use “pulse” surveys; we often refer to meetings about personnel as “temp checks”; and undesirable behaviors like the Booger Bandit leaving his calling card in our new bathroom are often referred to as “symptoms” of disengagement.
Disengagement is a very real, and very contagious, blight upon any productive workplace, and it’s my opinion that any CEO should want to wipe it out due to its significant monetary cost alone. Disengaged employees cost companies millions in lost productivity, retraining costs, and claims resulting from negligence or poor performance.
Although lost profits and back-end costs are an incredibly real (and mercifully quantifiable) effect of disengaged employees, my reasons for entering this field couldn’t have any less to do with the money. To be honest, I was swallowing back a surge of bile as I typed the preceding paragraph—but unfortunately, it’s the tack I have to take with the executive branch of the company I work for (as would most EEMs today), to append value to the hippy-dippiness of some of my initiatives. I doubt I could get anyone to care about boogers on the bathroom wall or sloppy utilization of our software systems without putting a number on it. The fact of the matter is that if we could automate all of our processes, we probably would—but until we get to that point, the human element is what drives every little bit of work we do (and profit we make). No matter how fancy our software systems are, no matter how cutting-edge our apps are or how deeply-ingrained our digital processes go, there are still humans here to use them. So why aren’t we taking better care of our people?
I should tell you that when I first started in Employee Engagement, I had entered the company via a sales role. Although sales (it turned out) was not for me, I witnessed a lot of things about the company’s culture that weren’t healthy. There was no shortage of sponsored events, free food, and free branded swag, and yet we had a problem with theft. We had cornhole boards in the middle of the sales floor and a kegerator that flowed every day at exactly 5pm, and yet my fellow employees still felt underappreciated. Cultural competency, even in an industry that required most representatives to communicate effectively with a wide swath of cultures, was insanely low. In all of our job postings, we talked about being a “growing company” with lots of “potential for success,” but very few employees felt as though there was an upward career trajectory, and even fewer even knew how to start growing in their careers.
Luckily, I’d put enough effort into my first role that I occupied to have proven that although sales is NOT where I should have been, I was at least valuable to the company and leadership agreed they wanted me around, just in a different role. Second, our VP of People and Talent had left, freeing up her salary to be used toward partnering with an HR consulting firm whose first priority is employee engagement and strong company culture. Third, a background in high-volume recruiting had given me a crash course in work environment, what people want, and what drives people away. Fourth, no one else was stepping up to the plate: although well-meaning management would devise contests and initiatives to get people bought in and working hard, lack of follow-through and tepid participation would spur each other on in a vicious cycle.
I had once asked the company’s owner, Bob, what changes he wanted to see in the coming year.
“Well obviously I’d like to see us hit our revenue goals. But I also want to increase employee engagement—”
My ears perked up.
“—like, getting more people to show up when I throw a barbecue.”
I immediately deflated, but I also was able to identify the root of the massive disengagement we had been experiencing. Bob was not wrong in his statement, but rather had an outdated view of what Employee Engagement actually is. In his mind, the symptom was the disease. His view easily trickled down to upper management, and from them to the rest of the company.
Of course, there are a lot of ways to treat the symptom of employees not showing up:
-Offer a $50 bonus or gift card to everyone who came
-Tell employees they could choose between working until 5:30 pm on Friday or attending the party
-Tell everyone that there would be a drawing for free Colts tickets and you were only eligible if you attended
-If you don’t go, you’re fired
In the same way, there are lots of ways to relieve a headache. However, there are also plenty of things that cause headaches, and only by finding the root cause can you go about curing those headaches for good. Likewise, there are lots of reasons for people not showing up to Bob’s for his barbecues. They might be:
– Bob lives twenty miles out of town and no one wants to drive that far
– Employees don’t feel a sense of connection to Bob or know how important it is to him that they come
– Bob always serves lots of alcohol at his parties, and some employees are uncomfortable
– Employees feel underappreciated and would rather spend their weekends with their families and friends
As you can probably reason, all four of the top bullet points are effective treatments for the symptom, but not one of them would even come close to curing a single one of the bottom causes; if anything, they’d likely worsen at least a couple of them.
Because I’m still in the beginning stages of the treatment plan for this place, I have to take small victories where I can. I get short, personal emails occasionally saying “thank you for the work you’re doing” and “you really are helping” and “I so appreciate the follow-through.” It’s telling, really, the compliments people give; they will reward, with positive reinforcement, the behaviors they need to see more of. At this particular company, people want to be thanked. They want to be recognized. And they want to trust that their company was going to follow through on its word. Just like an individual patient, if you listen well, a company—a community—will tell you what is wrong. The trick is discerning how to fix it.
Where one needs a doctor’s analysis, one also needs the fiercely compassionate sense and intellect of a nurse. Bound up in all of this talk of diagnosis and experimental treatment is the ability to listen to people’s commentary, to read their behaviors in the context of their conditions, and to advocate for them even when logic does not prevail. While there are certainly plenty of arguments to be made in favor of treating your employees like a pro football team and making cuts when people aren’t performing, I would argue for remembering why you hired people in the first place and helping them reach the potential you originally saw in them. If, once armed with all of the tools for success and placed on a level playing field with their peers, they don’t succeed—then it’s time for a different conversation.
It’s been about a month and a half since the last Boogering. Since then, we have reinstated monthly companywide meetings (the purpose of which is to bring everyone up to speed on strategic initiatives, monthly revenues, and success stories); we have taken everyone through the results of a behavioral assessment test we administered (which measures their motivations and what behaviors they will display to satisfy their needs or desires); we have opened the channels of communication that had previously been dammed (or damned) by office politics. I will not claim credit for all of this—the innovation, enthusiasm, and readiness to change of a few key players has been crucial. Had I not had a couple of high-ranking advocates myself—ones who immediately saw the value in taking a more human approach—I would have cut my losses and taken myself elsewhere. I would have had to.
Time will tell about the Booger Bandit. I’m still not sure who it is and I’m not exactly sure of their motivations. I don’t even know if I’m reading too much into it, and it really is just a person with a fingerful of boogers and nowhere else to put them. All I can do is get on their level and send as powerful a message through action as they are: I hear you and I’m here to help.
Nora is a Reed College alumna and proud graduate of the music department. She currently lives with her fiancé, and pets in Indianapolis, IN. Although she enjoys a career in HR, she spends her free time mostly on music, feminist conversation, and obsessing over her 75-pound pit bull, Aldo.
Accompanying Art, “Dead Crab” by Maya Fielder.