Employees May Have No More to Give as Engagement Makes Modest Gains in the U.S. Workforce

Minneapolis, MN, September 22, 2010 — As the U.S. economy continues its slow recovery from recession, Modern Survey’s latest study on employee engagement in the U.S. workforce reveals that while engagement on the whole is trending slightly upward, employees’ willingness to put forth an extra effort may be reaching its straining point.

Modern Survey began tracking the employee engagement levels of the U.S. workforce using nationwide samples of U.S. workers in August 2007. Polling a nationally representative sample of 1,000 working adults that matches census data in terms of age, gender and region, Modern Survey asks five questions that measure the degree to which employees: take pride in their company, believe they have a promising future at their company, recommend their company as a great place to work, go “above and beyond” their normal job duties to help their company succeed, and intend to stay with their company. Based on the rating each respondent gives across these five questions, Modern Survey categorizes respondents into four distinct levels of engagement: fully engaged, moderately engaged, under engaged and disengaged.

In August 2008, when the economic crisis was well underway, clear drops in all five components of Modern Survey’s Employee Engagement Index were recorded. Employee engagement saw a surprising upswing from August 2008 to August 2009, eclipsing pre-recession levels. A setback ensued, with a definite drop in engagement found in February 2010, but the most recent data has shown some recovery as upward movement can be found yet again for all five components. It should be noted, however, that “willingness to put forth an extra effort” saw far less movement, shifting but a single percentage point. The most dramatic movement was the statistically significant six percentage point increase in those who “intend to stay with the company for a long time.”

Over the course of this study, the number of fully engaged employees has stayed nearly constant throughout the recession, and hasn’t changed at all since February. What we have seen are spikes in the number of disengaged employees in August 2008 and again in February 2010. The recovery in employee engagement since February has come in the form of a notable drop in the number of clearly disengaged employees and corresponding rise in the number of under engaged employees.

According to Bruce Campbell, Senior Consultant at Modern Survey, “It appears that a substantial number of U.S. workers have adapted to the new reality of our economy. Our most recent data suggest that many workers who were clearly disengaged in February now feel more neutral about their companies and jobs. The majority of these under engaged employees intend to stay where they are for the time being, but are probably doing only the bare minimum needed to get by at work, and likely would not recommend working at their company to others.”

At a recent closed-door Executive Roundtable event, Modern Survey asked a panel of employee engagement experts and senior leaders in Human Resources to weigh in on the findings.

With productivity in the U.S. workforce seeing its first decline in over five quarters, and hours worked rising at a 3.5% annualized rate, many leaders were not surprised to hear that discretionary effort is lagging behind the other components of employee engagement.

Kristy Larson, Director of Talent Management at Starkey Labs, sees the lack of improvement in employees’ “willingness to put forth an extra effort” as evidence of a new standard being set nationwide.  “There’s no more left to give. We need to get to the point where we can add staff or think smarter.”

Tracy Engstrand, Director of Human Resources atFabcon, echoed this sentiment about the U.S. workforce, saying, “In terms of effort, we’ve gotten to the end of where we can go.”

David Ahlers, Chief HR Officer at Graco, believes part of the problem may have to do with a generational disconnect. “The 25 and under are exceedingly difficult to engage right now,” says Ahlers. “I’m not sure why that is but we’re clearly seeing that in the workforce.”

While the latest research suggests the battle to engage employees and increase discretionary effort (particularly among younger employees) may be reaching a difficult point, Modern Survey President, Don MacPherson argues that the fundamentals remain the same.

“I believe the drivers of engagement — especially recognition, personal accomplishment, and career development — transcend generations,” MacPherson said. “However, what leaders need to realize is that a Millennial’s definition of adequate recognition and appreciation may be completely different from that of a Boomer’s or Gen-Xer’s definition. It’s important for leaders to understand what drives employee engagement and to understand what amount each generation expects to engage them.”

See the full results from this study at: http://modernsurvey.com/news/

About Modern Survey
Modern Survey is a human capital measurement company. Providing a robust suite of proprietary technologies combined with an array of consultative services, Modern Survey helps organizations manage talent throughout the employee lifecycle, measure and evaluate customer satisfaction and gain insight into changing markets. Modern Survey products and services have spanned 100 countries on six continents in over 30 languages. Through direct and partner channels, Modern Survey’s solutions have been used by more than 500 companies, over 85 of which are among the Fortune 500.


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