The Nine Circles of Employee Engagement Hell

August 13, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

If you have spent any time traveling in the HR landscape, chances are at some point or another you’ve found yourself in what I would call “Employee Engagement Hell.” With a nod to Dante, I thought it might be fun to map the challenges to engagement a la the 14th century epic poem Divine Comedy.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”– Dante Alighieri

In Dante’s famous Inferno, the poet is led through the nine levels of the underworld by the Roman poet Virgil. The journey through each level (or circle) represents an allegorical journey of the human soul. My interpretation may be somewhat less allegorical—and definitely less epic!—but I do hope to offer some Virgil-like advice as to how to escape from each very real level of disengagement.

The first level in Dante’s underworld - limbo

The first level in Dante’s underworld is where virtuous but pagan souls are trapped and not allowed to progress to Heaven. In HR’s Limbo, workers also toil forever with no real opportunities to develop themselves. Blessing White’s 2011 Employee Engagement report found that the number one reason employees stated for leaving their company was: “I don’t have opportunities to grow or advance.”

ESCAPE PLAN: Rally your HR and management teams to create an employee development and succession planning initiative.

The second level in Dante’s underworld - lust

The second circle was a place where the lustful were blown by great gusts of wind—symbolizing the power of desire to blow them aimlessly to and fro. In our world, the desire people have is more positive: they are looking for meaning in their work. Likewise, their aimlessness comes from a lack of purpose or vision.  Studies show that workers want to know their work has a higher purpose and meaning. Without it, disengaged employees will go their own way—which might be right out the door.

ESCAPE PLAN: Give employees a strong vision, mission and core values that help them see the meaning in their work—and offer ways to practice those values on a daily basis

The third level in Dante’s underworld - gluttony

For the Employee Engagement Hell, level three’s Gluttony comes on the part of the organization—because one of the top complaints among disengaged employees is that they were not given proper resources to do their jobs effectively. Inadequate resources and poor enablement are an insidious source of discontent—gnawing at employees as surely as Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Dante’s third circle.

ESCAPE PLAN: Make sure you are enabling employees with the tools, communication, and resources they need to be effective.

The fourth level in Dante’s underworld - greed

In level four of Engagement Hell, money rears its ugly head much like Plutus, the wolf-like demon of wealth. A lack of budget for recognition—and a lack of recognition at all—is the view many strapped organizations are forced to take. Luckily, unlike the stones rolled by the denizens of circle four, moving money around can actually have a positive effect. Many companies may have budget spend hidden in disparate, unmeasured programs that can be simply moved around to free up money for engagement efforts like recognition.

Escape plan: Look carefully at what you’re spending in rogue recognition efforts—and consider shifting and consolidating funds to be more strategic and effective.

The fifth level in Dante’s underworld - anger

Angry, resentful souls fill level four of Engagement Hell. The cause is neglectful or half-hearted performance and talent management (including annual reviews that are universally dreaded). According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, these “managers from hell” are costing the US an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually.

ESCAPE PLAN: Offer everyone within the organization new and better tools to give timely and accurate positive feedback.

The sixth level in Dante’s underworld - hersey

Dante’s seventh circle is sometimes called the “City of Dis” – which is sort of fitting, to my mind, since the HR equivalent tends to “dis” the work HR leaders do. Some organizations pass the buck  for employee engagement back to HR, and managers and senior leaders fail to see engagement as the important business issue that it is, instead citing the heretical “it’s-not-my-job” excuse.

ESCAPE PLAN: Impress upon senior leaders the role of engagement as a critical business issue—rather than an “HR problem.”

The seventh level in Dante’s underworld - violence

A hostile office environment is everyone’s idea of hell. Everyone needs and deserves respect in their place of work. It is important to humanize workers and encourage positive, respectful relationships. Employee engagement hinges on feelings of trust, respect and safety in the workplace.

Escape plan: Diffuse violent feelings in the workplace by encouraging employees to respect and appreciate one another.

The eighth level in Dante’s underworld - fraud

A mismatch of talent and culture or job expectations is another commonly cited reason for disengagement in the workplace. When a person is a bad fit for their role or for the company culture, they may feel they are set up for failure. Make sure that you have a clear company culture and that you are hiring the right employees for the right roles in it.

Escape plan: Build a strong culture, and then hire people to fit it.

The ninth level in Dante’s underworld - treachery

Trust in leadership is one of the most important factors in employee engagement—which is why we reserve the Cocytus level of the Inferno for a failure in leadership. One Right Management/Manpower study found that 94 percent of employees who report that organizational change was not handled well (by leaders) are disengaged, and 54 percent of employees doubted senior leaders’ ability to respond appropriately to that change.

ESCAPE PLAN: Encourage senior execs to take culture off autopilot, lead by example, and involve themselves directly in driving employee engagement.

Flames of fire

 “From there we came outside and saw the stars.” – Dante Alighieri

Is your organization trapped in one of these levels? If you can make it through all nine circles unscathed, then you should also be able to escape the demons of employee disengagement.

It is said that few emerge from the gates of the underworld… but I figure if Dante can do it, so can you!

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