I’ve been pursuing a new direction in my study of the enterprise lately, something I’ve cleverly dubbed “The Engagement Project” because it’s a project all about employee engagement. (Ehem).

The project is based on a two-part questionnaire. Here it is:

  1. How do you like working at your present employer?
  2. Why?

Even just the first question has produced some remarkable results. For instance, I recently asked it of a highly intelligent, well-educated knowledge worker who is a top performer among her peers. Her reply?

“It’s better than waiting tables.”

Her answer was sincere, which I think makes it all the worse for her employer. In college, she waited tables to help pay the bills – as did I, as have college kids for generations now. She didn’t like it much. Her present situation is better than that. She has a steady paycheck, which is a bit higher than the tips she made waiting tables. She doesn’t have to run around, or deal with sometimes-surly customers, or get her hands dirty with the dishes she serves and clears away. She has health insurance and paid vacation time. Oh, and her weekend nights are her own. She’s young and single, so that’s important to her (though I think it’s fairly important to most of us).

…And that’s it. When I pressed her on it, she was clear: that’s all she likes about her present job. “The stuff they make us do? It’s stupid,” she says about her current employer. “All the hoops they expect us to jump through, all the metrics? Management isn’t helping us do our work; it’s actually in the way.”

I hope your most valuable knowledge workers find working at your company better than waiting tables

Remember, this is a top performer. So she’s hitting those metrics well, better than most of her peers. It’s easy to make excuses for poor performance, and blame that on management. But she is exactly the type of employee her company wants to keep – and she’s beyond disengaged: she’s actively un-engaged.

“If you think it’s so stupid…” I began. I didn’t even have to finish.

“Oh, I’m interviewing internally, to work in a different division. There’s at least one group in the company whose management doesn’t force all these stifling controls on its people. My friends in that role are really happy. But of course you have to hedge your bets. I’m interviewing outside of the company as well. I’ll see what offers I get. Who knows? There’s nothing keeping me here.”

Leaders of all levels, from frontline managers to the Chairman of the Board: I hope your most valuable knowledge workers find working at your company better than waiting tables. Do they?

And if so, how do you know?

*Please note: I had some really good experiences waiting tables, as did many, many of my friends. And it’s important work: a talented waiter is a host to countless memories! I don’t ever want to leave my readers with the impression that I look down on any labor. That’s not what I’m about.


Art by 0xo