Employee Experience Matters More

On a recent a flight home from London I settled into my bulkhead seat (I was upgraded to first) and was literally choked by the lavatory stench. I asked the Pursor if I could move and he offered me a seat just one row back, which did not solve my problem. I noticed several empty seats behind me and asked to move again and was abruptly told, “No, those seats are held for crew” (yep, they need to do that but four of them in a half full cabin?). Things went downhill from there including threats, taunts and abuse. I sat rigid in my seat for a full 8 hours and upon landing, the taunting continued during de-boarding, immigration and baggage claim, culminating in an attack in the taxi line. There was something wrong with this employee and clearly I picked the wrong day to expect the level of service I was accustomed to. When my formal complaint ended with Customer Service siding with the employee, I decided to share this experience on Facebook, simply asking someone to read my complaint. Within an hour, I got a phone call and was offered sincere apologies and four extra VIP upgrades. This employee, clearly empowered to do the right thing, kept me from dumping American Airlines as my preferred carrier, while the jaded, angry, slightly crazed employee nearly caused the loss of a profitable customer (I’ve purchased 3 million miles worth of air travel). This incident highlights the power employees have to either make or break the customer experience. I’m happy to say that since that incident, I continue to experience outstanding service, which improves every day.


An employee won’t delight a customer if his or her own experience at work is no good, an online business will not thrive if the people behind it don’t throw the full force of their energy and creativity into it and innovation doesn’t happen without the full engagement of minds and hearts.  I could go on, but this isn’t new news. Some businesses get it, but most still cling to that tired, annual ritual called the employee opinion survey as the sole method for addressing this problem. Often these tools are, at best a lagging indicator and at worst, a flawed instrument that creates a false sense of confidence that all is well.

One way to think about the ‘Employee Experience’ is to first consider what customers want. They want to be treated nicely and they want things to work smoothly, easily and efficiently. Of course they want value for money and love being rewarded for their loyalty. Customers want to be associated with a leader who is trustworthy and they want a brand so attractive that others flock to it. Employees want the exact same thing. They want to be well treated, they want processes and technologies that work and make things easy so that the mind is freed for more creative endeavors. They want to be paid a fair wage for a hard day’s work, they want leaders who are trustworthy and they want a brand that attracts outstanding colleagues to work by their sides.

Customers and employees are the essential “left hand” and “right hand” of any high performing business. Functioning without one is more than difficult – unhappy employees, unhappy customers, no customers, and no employees. It costs money to build a great customer experience and it costs money to build the same for employees, but the spending is almost always lopsided.  Why don’t companies invest to hire leaders who themselves are engaged, why not give employees the tools they need to perform and why not invest in an environment (physical, cultural, emotional) that stirs creativity, collaboration and innovation? Companies need to offer a new promise to employees in this post-lifer age, which is no longer about loyalty and predictability.

Fixing the Employee Experience is not just a nice to do; we are sitting on a proverbial burning platform. Just take a look at Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” report. It’s a terrifying read on the state of employee engagement and the cost of inaction. The report states that engagement drives greater productivity, lower turnover, and a better quality of work: “Organizations in the top decile of engagement outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share, and have 90% better growth trend than their competition.” But the bad news is that 7 of 10 workers are disengaged and uncommitted.

What is it that employees want that they’re not getting?  If we take away the obvious –more jobs and better job security – we see that the problem is more than a monetary one. What drives disengagement – outdated technology, depressing work environments, inadequate data and information, leaders who fail to inspire and opaque and often irrelevant communications? It’s probably all of these along with some new, unfilled expectations that center on purpose, personal brand, well-being and social responsibility. Consider this:

  • A recent HBR article, “Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact” talked about the new employer-employee contract that offers an employment model built around free agency, entrepreneurialism and networking. The article argues that cycling the best people in and out is better than employing a regiment of unhappy, stagnant workers.
  • Richard Branson and a team of corporate powerhouses have launched the B Team, “…a not-for-profit initiative that has been formed by a group of global business leaders to create a future where the purpose of business is to be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit.” They are inviting anyone to submit an idea that will advance the mission (selected ideas will be supported) and they provide a kit for anyone (private citizen or corporate member) to conduct a kick off meeting and join in on a global brainstorm focused on solution and action.
  • On June 6th, 2013, Arianna Huffington (Huffington Post) and Mika Brzezinski (Morning Joe) hosted a conference in New York City called the “The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power.”  Dealing mostly with issues such as mindful leadership and reworking work, they argue that money and power aren’t the only metrics that define success. Rather, they suggest, we need a third metric, one that measure the degree to which we feel a sense of meaning, well-being and health and that it’s time to chart a course to a new, more humane, more sustainable definition of success — for women and for men.

With these examples, it’s clear that change is needed and with visibility from leaders like Branson and others, maybe the naysayers won’t be able to hang on for too long. I think we’ve gotten twisted sideways on what it means to engage employees. A focus on the Employee Experience should radically alter how people join, perform, earn, learn and grow inside and outside the corporation. I offer four ideas that companies can use to build purpose and community to drive progress.


  • Define the mutual value exchange between employer and employee often called the “psychological contract,” “employee value proposition,” or “employment brand.”  Companies need to spend as much time defining their internal promise as they do defining the external brand. The internal brand covers things like learning, money, advancement, and challenge. More and more employees (and not just the young) are interested in endeavors that contribute toward the betterment of the world and they want to work for a company that deliberately seeks to add social value through giving, greening and creating sustainability around the world.
  • Align people to the company’s purpose, but go beyond the posters, wallet cards and coffee mugs. We all know about what Google does to activate the brand inside – it’s not all just fun and games; it’s about providing tangible (see, touch, hear) signs that Google lives the brand. Invest in strategic communications and internal rewards and programs to make the purpose real.


  • Create a connected organization; build communities for positive change and let a million flowers bloom. Communities must be enabled by a solid technology platform but this is just the table stakes. Too many social networking tools are thrown out into corporate cyberspace only to fail – difficulty of use (no single sign on), repelling and overly limiting rules or disillusionment because of absent leaders. An online community needs to be supported with the right tools that are safe enough to protect the company but flexible enough to be meaningful. They need the full support of enlightened digital leaders who are willing to be vulnerable and get down and dirty with the troops, while also striking the right balance between governance and freedom. With this foundation in place, the options are endless.


  • With people aligned to purpose and engaged in meaningful communities, progress toward a new employee experience accelerates. Change management, leader/manager development and talent management are all keys to this.  Companies should start to think about who gets hired, how rewards are allocated and most importantly how leaders and managers lead and manage.  Employee engagement can be tracked in a whole new way. So I say, throw away those old employee opinion surveys and put to use these new tools. I know this is slippery slope, but truth be told real-time listening via internal social media is an acceptable and valuable practice. Gather employee feedback via spot pulse surveys, use big data to track productivity (The New York Times addressed this topic recently), and get leaders actively engaged in the conversation and empower them to respond real-time with meaningful action (just like American Airlines did for me).

BOLDIt takes a village.  I’ll end this with a word of caution. No single function owns this new domain. We’ve seen how digital transformation of the customer experience has forced the IT and Marketing departments to find a new way of working together; and it’s not always been easy.  When it comes to the employee experience, HR, IT, Marketing and Legal all need to play together. Marketing and HR need to collaborate on the employee promise and its tie to Brand. IT needs to work with HR and Marketing to provide the right platform that links the customer and employee experiences and Legal needs to not only protect the company but also take a new look at the rules and challenge themselves to think differently. These four functions have to work together like never before but I would say, as the champion of the Employee Experience, HR needs to lead the way. And of course, none of this will happen without leaders who not only embrace the notion that employee engagement equates to business performance but also willing to fund meaningful action. Let’s just call that ‘walking the talk and putting your money where your mouth is’.

A business has to be involving, it has to be fun, and it has to exercise your creative instincts.  Richard Branson

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