Here is the headline and subhead summary of a recent article appearing on :


Companies like Gap, IKEA, and Wal-Mart are raising wages for their frontline employees—a critical first step to employee engagement.  Exceptional service, however, begins with an internal culture that values staff over profits.

I can’t remember the last time I saw such a densely compacted display of muddy reasoning, pandering, and false choices.  In just 39 words, has managed to fire off an almost impenetrable volley of chaff into what was already a less-than-crystalline image on our radar screens.

Where to begin?  Let’s start with the conflation of two very different concepts.  The headline talks about the latest ideas vis-à-vis empowerment.  The subhead summary refers to “a critical first step to employee engagement.”  The words “engagement” and “empowerment” appear exactly one other time in the article:  “Engagement and empowerment go far beyond dollar signs, as employee value cannot be limited to monetary worth.”  While the sentiment expressed in that sentence isn’t incorrect, the glomming together of empowerment and engagement is more than a little problematic.  Both are complex concepts.  Your efforts at attending to neither will be aided by treating them as synonyms.

So some companies are raising wages for frontline employees.  That’s fair and reasonable enough.  But the summary goes on to assert that this is “a critical first step to employee engagement.”  In other words, employee engagement can be purchased.  In fact, it must be purchased.  How else would you interpret pay hikes representing “a critical first step”?

But that’s not even what’s article goes on to argue.  Here’s its first sentence:  “When Gravity Payments' founder Dan Price announced last week that he'd be cutting his own income in an effort to boost the companywide minimum wage to $70,000, the Seattle-based credit card payment-processing firm launched itself to the fore of an ongoing debate about the omnipresent pay gap.”  But Price didn’t simply raise the wages of frontline employees.  He made a very public, principled, and credible statement—he did, after all, dip into his own pocket—about the company’s genuine concerns about how its employees are treated.  Reasonable people can differ about the wisdom of Price’s decision—I happen to think it was a good one as long as it’s consistent with the broader culture at Gravity Payments—but one thing that it doesn’t seem to have been was the kind of pandering suggested by the article’s subhead.

And finally, there’s this:  “Exceptional service, however, begins with an internal culture that values staff over profits.”  If I were a stockholder in Gap, IKEA, or Wal-Mart, would I want them to value profits first?  You’re damn right I would.  And what’s the best way to ensure higher profits?  Making sure your employees are giving you their all.  How to do that?  By doing the things that will lead to higher levels of engagement—such as demonstrating that, like Dan Price at Gravity Products, you are attuned to the complex dynamics of organizational life and trying to make sure that the company is being respectful of and fair to its people.

I realize that this Musing has been more a rant about a headline and subhead summary than about the ideas described in the article itself.  But that’s not unimportant.  The disconnect between headline and content suggests that the writer and/or editor didn’t really understand the subtleties—hell, the basics—of what they were publishing.

So here’s the worst Employee Engagement idea of the week:  Believing what you read about engagement and related topics at face value*.  Be appropriately discerning and skeptical.  Be precise and discriminating when it comes to the words you choose to use. 

In other words, don’t be like this article’s writer and/or editor.


* Except, of course, for these Musings