Nathan Tanner

Build-A-Bear and the Secret to Employee Engagement

I recently took my five year old to a Build-A-Bear Workshop near our home. It was her friend’s birthday party, and I sat off to the side while the young girls rummaged through clothes and accessories for their new teddy bears.

As the girls enjoyed themselves, I couldn’t help but notice two employees helping with the party. One was visibly tired and disinterested. It was clear he didn’t want to be there. Maybe it was just a bad day, but from all appearances he looked like a punch-the-clock, I’m-just-here-for-the-paycheck employee. The epitome of disengagement.

The second employee, Ryan, stood in stark contrast. He brought energy and enthusiasm to his job. He was passionate about his work. He was fully engaged. Ryan understood his job wasn’t to build teddy bears or sell accessories. His job was to provide each customer with a magical, memorable experience. Ryan excelled at that.

Finding and retaining employees like Ryan is a challenge all employers face. A recent Gallup study shows that only 30% of US employees are engaged. Globally that number is only 13%. To combat this problem, companies are heavily investing time and resources to increase employee engagement.

But creating an engaged workforce starts well before an employee walks through the door. The secret to employee engagement isn’t a reactive program, it’s having a robust hiring process that selects candidates who are the right fit for your company and the job their being hired for. Or as Jim Collins teaches in Good to Great, it’s about getting the right person on the bus, and into the right seat on that bus.

In Work Rules!, Google’s former Head of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, argues that companies aren’t spending enough resources to get the right people on the bus. In Bock’s words:

“The presence of a huge training budget is not evidence that you’re investing in your people… It’s evidence that you failed to hire the right people to begin with. At Google, we front-load our people investment. We spend more than twice as much on recruiting, as a percentage of our people budget, as an average company. If we are better able to select people up front, that means we have less work to do with them once they are hired.”

When managers make a poor hiring decision, no amount of training or investment can overcome that error. So, how do companies make sure they hire employees who engage? Here are two suggestions:

1. Companies need to be candid about the job.

Share the good, the bad, and the ugly. Employees are eventually going to find out what the job is really like. Why not be upfront? My favorite example of extreme candor comes from the job ad for Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 South Pole Expedition:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.

Candidates know that no organization is perfect, and being transparent will help people understand what they’re getting into.

2. Companies need to have a clearly-defined culture.

What is the purpose, vision, and mission of your company? When I was a first-year MBA student, I attended over a dozen information sessions for companies that interviewed on campus. I was struck by how clear LinkedIn was about its culture. For many of my classmates, LinkedIn was not the right fit. But for me, I knew it was where I wanted to be. I love working at LinkedIn because the company vision of creating economic opportunity deeply resonates with me.

The clearer companies are in defining their culture and what they are looking for in a new hire, the easier it is for job seekers to identify companies where they’re a good fit. Increased transparency leads to better decision making for the employer and the employee. Everyone wins.

Before my daughter and I left Build-A-Bear that day, I approached Ryan to tell him thanks for creating such a memorable experience. When asked how he was able to do it, Ryan responded, “I’m just a big kid myself. I know how to talk to the little ones.”

Build-A-Bear nailed the decision to hire Ryan. They found someone who is both passionate about the company and the job. In short, they have an engaged employee.

We would be wise to follow suit. By investing in talent acquisition and making sure the right people are selected up front, companies will spend far less time and energy dealing with disengaged employees, and more time helping their good employees become great.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.