Sandro_Botticelli_-_Inferno,_Canto_XVIII_-_WGA02854Non è sanza cagion l’andare al cupo: (Not causeless is this journey to the abyss) – Canto VII, Inferno, Dante Alighieri

We often get to read about progressive companies that invest in and also get their employee engagement strategies right. But rarely do we talk about companies that don’t get it quite so right. It just so happened that I started reading Inferno recently (not the Dan Brown version), and it eventually got me thinking. We often have traits of Bosses from Hell, Employers from hell. But what would a hell of Companies who get employee engagement wrong look like.

Let’s take a look at how companies enter Employee Engagement Hell, shall we?

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”

First Circle: Limbo – Organizations go through this state as leaders aren’t quite sure if they want to get into employee engagement. “We do parties and town-halls, isn’t that enough?” As Dante would put it, this is the state where the “guiltless damned are punished by living in a deficient form of Heaven.” For some leaders, who don’t really believe in the long term pain and investment required to achieve true employee engagement, this is the least amount of damage they can do to the organization.

Second Circle: Lust – Some organizations are condemned to the second circle because, of their leaders lust for awards. A TV channel announces a new category of corporate awards and some companies suddenly see a spurge of activity. Budgets are “discovered” to spend on what they think will make employees “happy” and “excited” and much public blogging and tweeting starts. Approximately a year later, the company wins the category trophy at the awards ceremony, a page in the annual report mentions, what a great a place it is to work and then things go back to the usual. The twitter handle goes silent after a while, the blog gives up the ghost and ‘project deadlines’ take over.

Third Circle: Gluttony – A glutton is one who consumes inordinate amounts of food and drink. Some organizations try to adopt anything sold to them as ‘employee engagement.’ Every strategy, every product, every ‘tactic’ is consumed mindlessly without any thought to its relevance. The concept of engagement is driven by a few (with possibly unlimited budgets) and eventually employees tire of the disjointed activities and initiatives. With little in terms of results, such engagement projects become an indulgence of a few powerful executives. Dorothy Sayers describes it very aptly as “the surrender to sin which began with mutual indulgence leads by an imperceptible degradation to solitary self-indulgence.”

Fourth Circle: Greed – In Dante’s Inferno, this circle of hell is populated by those, whose attitude towards material goods deviate from what was appropriate. Companies who feel that handing out cash-bonuses and material awards is enough to, “engage” with their workforce are condemned to this circle. These companies forget that compensation is a combination of monetary and psychological. Big cash awards as carrots for performance can only take the company so far, and at some point the company culture will be muddied by the ambitious and the unscrupulous. Money should be used as a basic hurdle – employees should be compensated adequately for their contributions beyond that the culture depends on much more than the pay-check.

Fifth Circle: Anger – The companies that are in this circle of our employee engagement hell are “withdrawn into a black sulkiness which can find no joy.” The leaders find the whole concept of investing in employee engagement ludicrous. “We already pay them a salary and the job is what they signed up for. Why should we have to invest to ‘engage’ them all over again” they rant. And as the famous adage goes “they get what they pay for.” Customer Service employees read from a prepared text and product service engineers do exactly what the manual tells them to. Eventually the customers leave and the employees follow. In the long run, the executives don’t have to worry about paying or engaging with anyone at all.

Sixth Circle: Heresy –Leaders who go a step beyond the ones upset with having to “invest in employee engagement” and dismiss the whole notion as a fad, condemn their organizations to this circle. These organizations not only have no active strategy and plan to engage their workforce; they in fact oppose any suggestions to implement such a program. The notion of leadership tends to be very much top-down in such companies, with a few deciding what the company, the clients and the market place needs and commit the organizations to their strategic roadmap. “My way or the highway” is a good approximation of the leadership style.

Seventh Circle: Violence – Companies that tolerate leaders and managers who believe that a ‘bigger voice is better’ find themselves in this circle. They believe that the employees cannot be trusted to take decisions on their own and micro-management is the only way to ‘get things done.’ Understandably, all the good employees leave such organizations and the ones that remain are mediocre and eventually the company suffers the consequences. No innovation or sustained growth is possible for such companies, because they will receive hardly any feedback or insights into what the customers are thinking. As with Dante’s inferno for companies in this circle, “the portal of the future has been shut.”

Eighth Circle: Fraud – At the very bottom of our employee engagement hell, we head into the two circles that punish sins of fraud and treachery. In Dante’s version, this is where the panderers, the seducers and the flatterers are doomed to spend time for eternity. And so too for companies, where the leaders profess to care about their employees, but hardly walk the talk. The leaders talk about listening to the teams, but no follow through happens. Collaboration is bandied about as important, but org-charts and siloed approach towards working rules. Employee engagement gets talked about in town-hall meetings, several pages with pictures of smiling people are dedicated in the annual reports, but the employees are left feeling cold wondering what the hell the leadership is talking about. And of course with the faith in leaders eroded, even genuine statements and promises get discounted and the downward spiral towards disengagement and eventually disappointment is inevitable.

Ninth Circle: Treachery – At the very bottom is the ninth circle, where the companies with insincere execution of employee engagement programs are put. These are companies where employee engagement budgets and efforts are allocated ad-hoc with little or no oversight. This lets the middle-managers and team leaders who may not have bought into the concept to sabotage the entire program. Managers sit on budgets and don’t hand out the awards to team-members, instead showing the amount as cost savings, at the end of the year to get their own bonus. At the end of the year, the leaders are convinced that employee engagement isn’t really working and that it’s only the hard-working managers who are saving the day for everyone by somehow cutting costs. Eventually, all efforts are abandoned and the company regresses to the good-ol’ command and control approach. Guess who are the only ones smiling when that happens?

The concept of Employee Engagement Hell might be a bit dramatic. The point I wanted to make is that leaders have to put substantial thought into deciding what the organization stands for, what is the culture they wish to propagate and what the employee engagement goals are – before embarking on building out the strategy and deploying solutions. There is no quick fix for employee engagement. Employee happiness yes maybe. Employee Excitement too can be achieved in the short term with a radical overhaul. But engagement takes a long term view, a sustainable strategy and unwavering execution to achieve.

Does your organization take employee engagement seriously, or do you think it should be relegated to one of the circles of Employee Engagement Hell? Tell us in the comments section below.

Image Credit: Sandro Botticelli – Inferno, Canto XVIII – WGA02854, Source Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Inferno: 9 Circles of Employee Engagement Hell.

  1. Nice Post and definitely dramatic! I work for a small company that outsources technology work from a larger IT company. We are about 50 employees and the managers believe that doing a company picnic (where nobody except the loud ones have any fun) right after they announce miserable pay-raises, counts for engagement. I am pretty sure my company belongs in the 8th Circle.


  2. I think my company is stuck in the first circle. They can’t make up their mind and managers keep having discussions about how to get teams motivated. Everybody is waiting for a grand strategy to evolve – by then I’m sure all the good people would have long gone!


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