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Most business leaders agree on the importance of great employee experiences in today’s talent environment — but do we know what “great” really means in this context?

I recently sat down with Dr. David Rodriguez, global chief human resources Officer of Marriott International, to discuss this important topic. You can listen to our entire conversation on my podcast, The Agile World. For a summary of Dr. Rodriguez’s thoughts on great employee experiences, read on.

It’s a Relationship, Not a Transaction

Observing that employee experience has always been around, whether it was called by that name or not, Dr. Rodriguez notes there are essentially two schools of thought when it comes to building the employee experience.

“One approach, of course, is that you think of your employees as any other resource,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “It’s an economic exchange, and as long as you can get people to produce what you need them to produce, some companies might declare that a success.”

However, Dr. Rodriguez notes that such a transactional approach is likely to lead to turnover. Instead, many companies are adopting a more relational view of the employee experience.

“The other way of looking at it is the notion that you’re really cultivating a relationship,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “You are running the company in a way so that people are thinking about the employment experience as a lifestyle choice, something they prefer. Why? Because the employer is thinking about it from the perspective of the employee and how they can add value to [employees'] lives.”

Many organizations are striving after this more relational approach in today’s tight talent market, but it can be challenging for even the smallest of companies. For complex multinational organizations that employ salaried and hourly workers in almost every country, speaking different languages and originating from different cultures, relational employee experiences can seem downright impossible.

Clear Values, Strong Culture

Instead of the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach many US-based companies take, Marriott International has a different view on how to build great employee experiences around the world.

“Our approach has always been to consider the issues that are universal and timeless across geographies and cultures and ensure we are laser-focused on those,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “Then, we ensure that we’re empowering people at the local level to express those issues, to define what it means to them and what resonates with them. It is critical for a globally distributed company to think that way.”

Of course, in order to be able to trust employees at the local level to know what to do and how to best exemplify your brand, you need to provide clarity into what your brand is. Your employees can only interpret your brand appropriately for their locations if they all share the same set of well-defined values.

In this case, the details really matter. How a company introduces its values to employees and encourages employees to embody those values will be critical to success. Companies must be careful, though, not to dictate behavior from the top down. Instead, incorporating company values into everything your employees do requires a bottom-up approach.

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“We are religious in making sure that we continuously espouse the fundamental core values of the company and what we stand for, but then we try really hard to get out of the way,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “We are in about 140 different countries. We let the local environment find a way to get people fired up about our core values. In the local environment, it’s important that we’re having people be thoughtful about how they best express what would resonate not just with our employees but in the community and with the public at large.”

The ‘Soft Stuff’ Can Sink a Company

When everyone is empowered to interpret and enact company values in a way that is appropriate to their specific context, that leads to a culture and mission equally shared by company leaders and employees.

Measuring success in this effort can often prove challenging, as intangibles like culture and employee experience can be notoriously hard to quantify. However, Dr. Rodriguez warns against drawing the conclusion that the “soft stuff” must not be that important.

“Leaders have to be careful, because not everything that’s important in our environment lends itself easily to measurement,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “Many companies who’ve had great debacles, it’s partly because they think, ‘Well, it’s just the soft stuff. We really can’t measure it. Let’s not pay attention to it.’ When you see companies crumble, it was the soft stuff. It wasn’t lack of understanding of your customers.”

While measurement is difficult, it’s not impossible. Dr. Rodriguez notes that, for Marriott, “the output from an inspiring culture … is engagement in the business.”

“An employee isn’t just working for Marriott because it’s a paycheck or salary,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “They are working for Marriott because it is helping them grow as a human being. It is providing a community of relationships that add value to their life.”

And this translates to value for the customer, too. Marriott’s internal research shows that more engaged employees influence how customers feel about the company’s hotels. Employee engagement, then, is a primary measurement of the health of Marriott’s business. When customers sense that employees are going above and beyond in their work, they enjoy engaging with that company and are more loyal as a result.

Achieving meaningful levels of engagement requires more than extrinsic incentives like added bonuses and perks. Rather, employers need to feed their employees’ intrinsic motivations through culture and the employee experience.

“You see more and more research about the trade-offs that millennials will make against pay versus other things that are important to them,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “The things that are more extrinsic, such as needing to feed themselves and their families and wanting to work in safe and clean working conditions, are really bare minimums. You might be able to get by for a while if you use incentives that push extrinsic motivation, but you’re in a sense ensuring your long-term failure because you are training your employees to think of their employment as just an economic exchange.”

Greg Kihlström is president and chief experience officer at Cravety and the author of The Center of Experience.

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