Employee Experience: A New Social Contract

May 19, 2017 | Randi Kenney | HCI
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What is social contract theory? Very briefly, it’s the idea that an individual’s obligations are dependent on an agreement, or contract, among individuals to form a society. Thinkers who have considered this question have generally done so in the context of political systems, in an effort to establish the legitimate authority of a state over an individual. Generally speaking, the idea of a contract is that the individual consents to give up some rights and freedoms to the state in exchange for certain benefits.

John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are perhaps the most famous to have written on the topic. Each of these individuals had varying perspectives and ideas, and some have stood the test of time better than others. Still, there is value in deconstructing some of these principles in order to better understand how we can achieve a more positive and engaging employee experience.

Before we do that, we should establish a working definition of employee experience. HCI’s perspective is that employee experience goes beyond just perks like game rooms or standing desks, and encompasses the processes, tools, technologies, communication and culture that make up the workforce. Why does it matter? Delivering a great experience not only provides a significant competitive advantage in a changing marketplace, it attracts and retains top talent, and most importantly, it is a major driver for innovation.

What does the idea of a social contract have to do with the employee experience? We’ll call it the Randi Kenney Theory of Employee Experience—the idea that employees do their best work for you, boosting your bottom line, in exchange for personal and professional fulfillment in an environment that allows them to flourish. An engaged employee relates to his or her organization on a foundation of reciprocity, mutual understanding and respect, and inclusion in the organization’s social fabric and overall mission.

There are two concepts I want to explore in this blog, and they both come from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, published in 1762.

“Whether as between one man and another, or between one man and a whole people, it would always be absurd to say: "I hereby make a covenant with you which is wholly at your expense and wholly to my advantage; I will respect it so long as I please and you shall respect it as long as I wish.”

Have you ever worked in a job that made you feel that way? As an employee, have you ever felt like you’ve continued to contribute above and beyond only to be recognized with… nothing? What happens next?

Earlier this week, Mark Allen, author and HCI faculty member, gave the closing keynote at our 2017 Performance Management Innovation conference. He shared an anecdote of Cousin Jane, who did just that—excelled in her role, met goals that she set together with her supervisor, and still fell short of that elusive 5 rating on her performance review. What followed was something of a spiritual crisis, resulting in a lot of questions, particularly: Why should I work this hard if my organization doesn’t value me? Does my work really not matter that much? Or, if my work is valuable, am I working for the type of organization that just doesn’t believe in fair compensation? If that’s the case, do I really want to be working for these people? Worst of all, am I just expendable?

The Randi Kenney Theory of Employee Experience says that the contract between employee and manager, employee and organization, must be a two-way street. It is absurd, to use Rousseau’s word, to expect the best performance from your employees if you aren’t giving anything back in return. This looks different in practice at every organization. Jacob Morgan has posited that the employee experience is created by three intertwined environments: the technological environment, the cultural environment, and the physical environment. Each of these will take shape differently depending on the nature of your organization, but in order to achieve maximum engagement, you’ll need to address each one.

(As an aside, some could argue that organizations have always given something back in return—a paycheck. To that, I would quote Stan, the restaurant manager from the movie Office Space: “People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, ok? They come to Chotchkie's for the atmosphere and the attitude. That's what the flair's about. It's about fun.”)

Let’s take a look at another idea from Rousseau: “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State ‘What does it matter to me?’ the State may be given up for lost.”

Replace State with Company and you have the foolproof recipe for a disengaged employee.

Consider this research. Less than half of surveyed workers say they can always make the connection between their day-to-day duties and the company’s bottom line. But they want this information—especially younger workers. Sixty-four percent of employees ages 18-34 wish they had more insight into how their day-to-day activities impact the bottom line. Employees want to feel that their jobs have a purpose, that their time away from home and family is serving a greater goal.

The Randi Kenney Theory of Employee Experience encourages you to tell them. Create a culture of openness around your organization’s mission and goals, its pathways to profitability. I know what my role, as a product marketer here at HCI, means in the context of what HCI seeks to accomplish on a daily basis. (Okay, perhaps it’s a little more obvious if you’re in marketing.) For other teams, it might not be so obvious. When’s the last time you talked openly about how your IT team or your research division supports the organization and helps it achieve financial goals? If they don’t drive the business forward, they wouldn’t be there, but they need to know how they contribute to the overall process. Even further, what does your IT team know about how the research division contributes to the business goals, and vice versa?

In summary, crafting a strategic and engaging employee experience will have a direct impact on your company’s bottom line. Employers who are proactive in examining their three environments, and make a concerted effort to include everyone in the company vision, will enjoy a competitive advantage—from hire to retire. Quality talent will want to work for your company, and quality talent will want to stay with your company.

It can be a daunting task, though. That’s why we’ve gathered leaders and innovators from companies like Pandora and Charles Schwab to share case studies, new research, and groundbreaking next practices at our first-ever HCInnovation@Work Conference. Join us in Scottsdale October 24-26 to uncover the tools, resources, and ideas you need to change the face of the employee experience at your own organization.