Engagement Amongst Low-Paid Employees

During the last several months I’ve been providing keynotes and training sessions on the topic of employee engagement, and I usually have at least one person follow up with me afterwards to say, “I could use some extra coaching, because I work…” and then, the person will insert a phrase like “in the public sector,” “with volunteers,” or “with hourly employees.” Quite recently, someone suggested to me that low-paid, low-skilled  employees rarely engage at work. That’s an interesting assertion, and it’s not one that I’ve found to be true.

TANGENT ALERT! I’ve often found the opposite to be true: low engagement cultures seem prevalent in the ranks of higher-paid, more highly-skilled employees. But I think it’s more about mindset than money or education. Some industries and job families breed entitlement and/or arrogance because of the high demand for certain skills. At times, those possessing skills that are in high demand might be personally engaged at work because they feel irreplaceable and, hence, untouchable. But their attitudes and mindsets can inhibit the engagement of others. Without going into detail, let me just say that I wish I got a cut of sales from Robert Sutton each time I recommended his book, The No Asshole Rule, to physician and information technology groups.

Not all jobs require an atom-smashing degree, nor do all jobs pay employees on par with members of the United States senate. I find employee excellence and engagement taking place regardless if employees sweep floors or sign treaties for a living.

At a recent trip to Costco, I observed several vendors giving out free samples at the end of many aisles. One of the vendors, I’ll call her Louise, filled and dispensed little paper cups of granola. Based on my observation and understanding of human nature, I would suggest that Louise may not be a happy person nor an engaged employee. Her face appeared frozen in a frown with a down-turned mouth and hard eyes. Perhaps Louise was abused by granola when she was a child, I don’t know. But what I do know is that when my wife took a small cup of granola from the tray, Louise seemed to glare at her.

Compare Louise to a man in a similar role about three aisles over named Albert who offered free samples of almonds. Unlike Louise, Albert seemed happy. I don’t know if he came from a “good home” or had some “happiness gene” that others lack. But Albert smiled, and that smile reached his eyes. And he talked. He didn’t just talk, he made his product seem interesting, made it so I actually wanted to listen to him and learn.

“‘Are these really almonds?'” Albert asked from the point-of-view of a customer. “‘How can they be almonds when they are not shaped like almonds?’ Great question! Let me tell you why,” Albert answered himself in the dialogue he shared with the air. “These here are Spanish almonds, the kind of almonds they grow in Spain. That’s why they round. That’s why they so tasty. And the salt? Well, that’s what we call sea salt cuz it comes from the sea…” Albert continued with undiminished enthusiasm regardless of the size of potential customers nearby.

It’s quite possible that Albert made up all of that stuff about Spanish almonds on the spot. But he had some passion, and he made me laugh. He made me want to listen to him and watch him. And then he made me want to buy his product, which I did. And based on the number of people around his station, I think it’s possible that Albert gave out more samples, educated more shoppers, created more customers, and sold more products than other vendors, vendors like Louise.

Why? You might try to argue that almonds totally outrank granola in snack food status. You might suggest that Albert had a better location for his station. Perhaps consumer trends toward low carbs fad made people treat Louise as if she were peddling cigarettes to school children. But I doubt it. Albert got better results than Louise not because of his earnings, his product, his education, or his location. No, Albert performed better because he acted the way engaged employees act– with enthusiasm, passion, commitment, friendliness, and his own unique style. In reality, Albert wasn’t engaged because he made more money, but Albert’s high engagement level MADE MORE MONEY FOR HIMSELF, FOR THE COMPANY THAT MADE THE PRODUCT HE SOLD, AND FOR COSTCO.

Want to increase the engagement level of your employees? First, realize that engagement starts with you. If you’re not engaged as a leader, just expect to see more Louise’s than Albert’s on your team. Second, stay tuned…


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  1. Great insights Scott. When I was a lower level employee I was dying to be engaged. For me what it meant was using my gifts and having the leadership “see” me and encourage me to do more of what I was good at. Unfortunately for them, engagement meant getting us to join committees so they could check off the “engagement button” off the list. I love your point that engagement starts with the leader.

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