FocusED 2018 | Issue 1 - By Dr. Daniel Mount, Associate Professor, Penn State University's School of Hospitality Management - The pattern is a familiar one in engagement research. When looking at job tenure, employee engagement is at its highest when the employee is new, drops off dramatically in the first year, and then slowly rises with the long-term employee. 

In work with two companies, the percentage of engaged employees in moving from the initial employment category to the less than one year category dropped by 26% for one company (from 42% to 31% engaged) and 27% for the other (from 56% to 41% engaged). In both cases, as evidenced repeatedly in many studies, engagement then slowly rises with time in the job. 

So how does a company keep the “shiny-new lustre” perceived by the new employee? We start by looking at the engagement index items of feeling like a part of a team in the workplace, feeling like a special and valued employee, feeling like the employee is accomplishing their personal and professional goals, and recommending the hotel as a good place to work. The first three items are psychological (recommending is a behavioral question) and actionable. While all the items are part of the engagement index and this highly correlated with the index, the most correlated of the items changes over tenure of employment. The most correlated item in the first year of employment is the item that addresses whether the employee feels special and valued. The most correlated item for the longer-tenured employees is whether they feel that they are accomplishing their personal and professional goals. 

So the item to focus on in the first year of employment is the feeling for an employee of feeling special and valued. In a factor analysis completed in development of the engagement index, most all of the survey items that “loaded” onto the special and valued factor began with the words, “My direct supervisor….”.  Survey items included such questions as, “My direct supervisor respects me,” “My direct supervisor listens to me,” “My direct supervisor treats me fairly’ and, “My direct supervisor tells me how I am doing.” No matter the specific question, the key here is that the feeling for an employee of feeling special and valued in the first year of employment rests primarily on the supervisor-employee interaction.  

Supervisor-employee interaction can be managed to a great degree.  Policies can be implemented that mandate interaction such as periodic reviews during the first year of employment – most likely more frequently than currently takes place. These reviews should emphasize not only work performance, but how the employee is acclimating to the work environment, are they feeling like a part of the team; do they feel their work is valued. Employees must develop a sense of trust with their supervisor, and be able to feel that they can openly bring issues, problems, or concerns to their supervisor’s attention without fear of retribution.  Supervisors must be trained (or reminded of that training!) on how to interact with employees on a daily basis. Listening is not simple nor is it a science. It is an art that can be developed.  

Recognition is an important piece of the puzzle in making an employee feel valued. Research has shown that recognition is different things to different people and takes many forms. At its most base level, it is often just thanking an employee for a job well done or simply acknowledging that you have observed their good work.  Reward theory suggests that inpidual accomplishment should be recognized immediately. 

The most critical part of the employee first-year experience is assuring them that their work matters and that they are a special and valued employee.  Companies may not be able to completely eliminate the first-year drop in engagement but they can certainly reduce the size of the fall by focusing on their supervisor-employee interactions.  

About the Author

Dr. Mount, Associate Professor, at Penn State University’s School of Hospitality Management, has over twelve years of hospitality industry experience. He is a Certified Hotel Administrator (CHA) with a D.B.A. in International Business from United States International University, an M.B.A. from Michigan State University with a specialization in Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management, and a B.S. in Finance from Minnesota State-Mankato. Dr. Mount currently teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Advanced Hotel Operations, International Hotel Operations and Service Management at Penn State. His major areas of research include service quality, employee satisfaction, and the development of new methods to apply survey data. He has published 35 articles in leading research journals, such as The Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research, the Journal of Quality Assurance in Hospitality and The Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Quarterly.