Yahoo! HR Leader Examines the ‘Gravitational Pull’ of Employee Engagement

December 2, 2016 – Employee engagement forms the foundation of many talent acquisition leaders’ approach to human capital. Engagement binds employees to an organization’s core values and its purpose. And it is engagement that puts people first, front and center, as an integral part of corporate business strategy. 

Employee engagement first appeared as a concept in management theory about two decades ago. But today it remains contested. To some HR leaders, engagement stands in an unspecified relationship to earlier constructs such as morale and job satisfaction. Despite its critics, employee engagement practices are now commonplace and well-established in the people management field.  

In the following exclusive interview, Vineet Gambhir takes us on an illuminating journey into corporate happiness and cultural DNA. As VP and head of talent for Yahoo! in Asia Pacific, Vineet views the world of work through the lens of employee engagement. As he tells us, an engaged employee is someone who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about work and therefore takes positive action to further their organization’s reputation and interests.

Vineet is a seasoned HR executive with over 20 years of international experience in human resources, HR information systems and global operations. Having worked in the end-to-end talent strategy field, including in the U.S., China, India and Singapore, where is he currently based, he has led, built, managed and engaged diverse global teams for companies including Cisco, HCL America and Intel.


Vineet, tell us what engagement means to you and what role does it play in a human capital strategy? 

Employee engagement is a whole lot like gravity, which binds the employees to core values, what the company stands for and the mission the company is on. If the company were a house, then engaged employees would be its foundation. Even if the house were solidly built, without that foundation it would crumble. I see employee engagement through this sort of lens. People go home after work and talk about what they worked on, whom they met and what they did. Their work experience is what drives them and how their day went is a function of the culture in the office. A couple of easy self-tests I feel work to gauge one’s engagement quotient – I call it weekend inertia and the vacation inertia. Weekend inertia refers to that feeling when the alarm clock goes off at 6am Monday morning and you have to get ready to go to work. If it is unusually high and consistent, it typically signals you are there because you have to be not because you want to be. Vacation inertia is the feeling the evening of the last day of vacation. The magnitude of this signifies whether the work life has been extremely stressful, much of it dissipating during the few days of rest. In one of my previous companies, employees earned a paid sabbatical after a certain number of years of service. Three quarters into it I decided I was feeling ‘home-sick’ and joined back two weeks ahead of schedule. When an organization is getting that gravitational pull right, it is doing engagement right. 

So, engagement is keeping the employee happy, right?

Happiness is just one part of the engagement puzzle. A friend of mine and I got into an interesting debate on cars. While I was in the automatic transmission camp, my friend while giving me the ‘I can’t believe we are discussing this’ look, passionately arguing that stick shift manual transmission or changing gears constituted the real driving experience. He got me thinking that employee engagement is a whole lot like a stick shift car. It, too, has a number of gears, which if adroitly handled, can lead to a great organizational experience. The gears are: (1) I: Intellectual engagement (2) E: Emotional engagement (3) F: Financial engagement (4) S: Social engagement. Intellectual engagement is when the employee feels his or her opinions are valued, inputs and ideas are sought, they can innovate and challenge the status quo and are not afraid to propose a new idea even if unpopular. Emotional engagement is when the employee is recognized for success, has the fire in the belly to see the company get ahead in the industry, and can count on the company in their time of need. Financial engagement is about the job meeting the employee’s financial goals and feeling financially rewarded for accomplishments. Finally, social engagement is about enjoying what one does and even having the family taking pride in what the employee does. 

A lot of companies have large engagement budgets. There are even dedicated roles focused on engagement. Why doesn’t it really seem to work? 

First, engagement needs to be part of an organization’s DNA. It can’t be an initiative or a project. When it is part of the DNA, it becomes a way of life. It is, therefore, working well. When something is a project, it implies it is solving a problem – there is, therefore, a problem to begin with. Second, engagement needs to be proactive. Often we engage when the attrition is high and there is a feeling that the morale is low. Engagement should be a step ahead. Engagement should precede not succeed events. Third, employee engagement should not depend on financial performance or macroeconomics – if it must, it should rather be inversely proportional. Challenging times need more not less employee engagement. Engaged employees are like skilled warriors who will win any battle they face. Fourth, engagement should encompass the entire life cycle starting with those who are about to join and continuing far beyond after someone has left the organization. Despite perfect engagement approaches, employees will move to another phase of their career. Engagement ensures they leave with a good feeling about their company (helpful for the company’s employee value proposition and brand) and it also ensures that many of the employees would be willing to come back.

What about data? Is engagement an art or is there some science to it, too?

To be honest, there is a bit of both – gut instinct and science. Let’s say you have a doctor who has read all the books in the school. After he or she has studied your symptoms, he or she will say you’ve got a runny nose and give you some medicine. But you also have savvy individuals who will say, ‘You have been walking around in the rain, the weather’s been pretty cold and you’ve been walking around with people who are sick. I’d advise you to stay warm and increase your vitamin C intake.’ Now, that’s a predictive doctor. Use your instincts because that’s what makes you special as an HR person to better understand emotions. But also use data to validate those emotions. When it comes to engagement, it is important not just to collect data but also to use the data to understand themes and trends. Data can be valuable for predictive analysis of engagement. For example if a top performer did not receive a salary increase for the last three years, such data can predict high attrition risk by time horizon and there is a chance to retain the employee before it is too late. 

Any concluding thoughts, Vineet? 

We expect great service while dining at a restaurant. While flying, we expect great in-flight service. The four walls of an organization are no different. Employees expect great service driven by a great management experience. Treating employees as internal customers, and delivering an employee experience as a service, is exactly what world-class employee engagement is all about.

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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