There is one stand-out mistake we see more consistently than any other within employee engagement approaches.

It is a mistake so bad that it completely ruins organisations, plunges them into deep crisis, and ensures a significant lack of ‘buy-in’ into any employee engagement initiative. Yet it is something so easy to avoid we can be forgiven for wondering why companies continue to fall into its trap.

Most often found residing in those old-fashioned top-down approaches to management and engagement, it is the failure to co-create with staff. The idea that engagement and business outcomes can be developed in isolation at the corporate HQ is a losing philosophy.

Typically, colleagues get together, think up some new programmes and engagement initiatives, do some light consultation with stakeholders, present to the board, take feedback from senior directors, and then go to full top-down implementation across the organisation starting with a surprise announcement to the workforce. This practice in 2018 is just awful and is the stuff of nightmares.

Nightmare case in point – step-up United Airlines.

Falling into the trap in the past week, United has learned another valuable lesson in Employee Experience on its journey to fulfill the company’s stated mission: becoming the world’s best airline. This objective, for any company, is an ambitious target, but it is especially ambitious for United, a firm famous for creating a seemingly constant flow of negative news based on some of its practices across both Employee and Customer Experience.

“Our mission is very clear — to be the best employer, have the best customer service and become the best airline in the world,” United CEO Oscar Munoz said in 2017.

Fast-forward to 2018 and United continues to attract negative headlines for the way in which it interacts with customers and employees. It has now widened its scope to include animals too. The airline was slammed recently for the way it treats pets travelling on their planes.

On the Employee Experience side of things, a storm erupted with the announcement that the airline would be replacing the quarterly performance bonus programme, which all employees are eligible for, with a random lottery benefiting the few rather than the many. This company-wide raffle includes prizes ranging from cars to holidays to a jackpot $100,000 prize for the lucky winners. This is separate to the profit-sharing programme already in place with staff.

In our work at the World Employee Experience Institute (WEEI), we encourage and support organisations to define, design, and deliver experiences that connect people to a compelling purpose and the internal and external community, but one of the most important factors within our approach is co-creation, and the example provided by United provides more tangible reasons why it is such a fundamental building block for great organisations.

All of United’s good work improving the workplace came undone because the airline didn’t co-create this specific iteration of their reward programme with employees. This was certainly very top-down – an approach increasingly being resisted in workplaces around the world. United employees took to social media to voice their opposition and the internal communication platforms were jammed with comments from shocked and unhappy employees.

One comment out of hundreds of complaints from employees revealed the progress United had been making to improve morale and stabilize the company, yet also indicated the clear lack of empathy for employees in designing the new lottery system.

“It felt like we had just gotten to a place where employee morale was up. It took so many years for people to feel good about what was happening. In one fell swoop, it is crushed again…please rethink this decision.”

Within a few days, the introduction of a lottery had been ‘paused’. United President, Scott Kirby, gave us more evidence to suggest that co-creation is key within Employee Experience approaches and could have potentially saved United from this challenging situation within and outside of the company.

“Since announcing our planned changes to the quarterly operations incentive program, we have listened carefully to the feedback and concerns you’ve expressed. Our intention was to introduce a better, more exciting program, but we misjudged how these changes would be received by many of you.”

Whilst many are condemning the airline, I sense a great opportunity here. Employee sentiment has showed what is best about any organisation. We are better when we stand together, united. Employees have clearly demonstrated that they would rather walk forward as one to achieve United’s stated mission than the alternative being presented by management.

So perhaps co-creation has taken place after all, albeit in a very public and brand damaging manner. Employees have spoken. Co-creation is the key to successful outcomes within Employee Experience, and if this is a strong part of the business strategy, companies won’t need to play the lottery to deliver sustainable business success.

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