Could the Walkout Have Been a Positive Sign for Google's Employee Engagement?
By the time any of us are in our early 20s and entering the workforce, our core values are pretty well set. This is not to say that we can’t change over time, but research shows that we don’t change much when it comes to the fundamental beliefs and values we hold after a certain age.
These personal values are the single best predictor for our behavior at work on a daily basis. So, to create a workplace that’s truly engaged, business leaders must understand not only who their people are as individuals but also give them a way to vocalize and express those personal values when appropriate.
When Google made the decision earlier this month to offer executives accused of sexual assault paid exit packages, some of its employees believed that offer violated their personal values. Workers felt that their personal beliefs around what constitutes proper conduct in the workplace were ignored and disregarded.
This led more than 1,500 Google employees to "walk out" in protest on Nov 1. Yes, this was a big PR nightmare for the search giant, but it might also signal good news: that Google’s team members have a strong value set and feel empowered to voice their opinions.
Why you should empower your employees to speak up.
Even though the circumstances that brought on the protest were unfortunate, the behavior by employees may reflect an engaged workforce. Clearly, these people felt comfortable and confident in speaking up – even if that voice was in opposition to current company practices. What's important, though, is that it's rare to see this sort of unified behavior in organizations where people feel unempowered to affect change.
Empowered employees are far more engaged employees. This means that, as a business leader, you should consider it critical to empower your workers to speak up on issues they care about. Creating a culture that does that leads to a positive impact on your bottom line business performance through higher levels of productivity and lower levels of employee turnover.
So, whether you lead a company the size of Google or -- likelier -- a smaller organization, here are some concrete steps you can take to drive a more engaged and united workplace.
Clarify your company core values (then live by them).
Company vision and values are more than a poster in the breakroom. If employees believe they are part of something bigger than themselves, they are more likely to be engaged and go above and beyond their tasks and individual goals.
However, only a small percentage of American workers believe in their organizations’ values. Gallup’s recent Core Values Audit showed that just 27 percent of employees surveyed strongly agreed that they believed in their company's values, and only 23 percent strongly agreed that they could apply their organization's values to their work every day.
As an employer, its important that you be aware that employees who are disconnected to your company can more easily get stuck in “autopilot” and require more motivation outside of daily tasks in order to be engaged and productive.
All organizational performance starts with a clear and compelling vision and core values that underscore how that mission will be achieved. Essentially, engaged employees understand the bigger company picture and how they fit into it. In Google’s case, its engaged employees reacted in protest when they saw their company failing to live out its established values. And, this wasn't the first time Google employees retaliated against what they believe to be right.
Last April, thousands of Google employees, including dozens of senior engineers, signed a letter to the CEO protesting Google’s role in a federal program that could be used to improve drone strike targeting. Again, this could be considered the sign of an engaged workforce. In an organization where employees aren't as engaged, more resignation memos than picket signs or petition letters likely would have resulted.
Get to know the individual(s).
In the same way that employees must know your company’s core values, you must know your people's values. This can be especially tough in fast-paced or large corporations like Google, but there’s nothing more important.
Communication works more effectively when people know how the other side operates(personality quirks, preferred methods of handling conflict, biggest pet peeves, etc.). Zappos, a company known for its employer brand, has an “80-20 rule” that mandates managers spend at least 20 percent of their time with their team members.
As Zappo’s Insights trainer Kelly Wolske wrote on a company blog, “When you get to know each other on a personal level, mutual respect grows. Knowing someone’s triggers as well as their strengths can also improve communication.”
Leaders, in short, can learn more about their people by using technology or focus groups to bring employees together to talk about what’s most important to them, both at home and at work. The point is to identify three to four closely-held core values for each team member. Then use this information to set goals to motivate and reward employees on an individual level to improve engagement. In return, you will garner company loyalty and engagement organization-wide.
Listen intently and frequently.
The Qualtrics Global Employee Pulse study found that 60 percent of employers polled solicit feedback but only 30 percent act on it. Circulating regular surveys or implementing feedback technology in your business is one step, but collecting, analyzing and acting on feedback is another. Such action doesn't have to be daunting if you have the right tools in place, but employee input should never go in one ear and out the other.
A fantastic example is the way Google CEO Sundar Pichai handled the most recent protest. On October 30, Pichai sent an email to employees making it clear that he supported the walkout. He acknowledged that the company’s approach to handling past sexual harassment cases hadn't been enough -- evidence that he was listening. He said he shared employees' feelings of “anger and disappointment”; and he noted that sexual misconduct had “persisted far too long in our society” and at Google, thus echoing the sentiment of many of his colleagues.
The email exemplified a culture of listening and action. As leader, he didn't sit back and stay silent but instead listened and stood by his teams. In doing so, he no doubt increased his following. Listening, followed by acting and creating change, builds trust in the workplace. If employees feel they’re being heard, they will absolutely be more engaged at work.
Engagement is personal. We each have our own unique wiring and value-set that determine the blueprint behind who we are and what we need in the workplace. The universal truth, however, is that we all feel more engaged when we can bring our true selves to the workplace -- even when that means speaking up against company policy.
Those companies that take the time to understand their people and empower them to speak their own truth will benefit from an engaged workforce that drives organizational success.