(Photo by Filadendron/iStock by Getty Images)

It’s a dilemma that’s been faced by HR professionals since the evolution of their role: As literal conduits and arbiters between the C-suite and employees, how do they get both levels to consider the advice of HR itself–and actually act upon it?

Tools and tips for how to navigate this tricky balancing act were offered during a From Day One webinar, “Speaking Their Language: How to Talk Employee Engagement and Belonging With the C-Suite,” featuring Natalie Baumgartner, PhD, chief workforce scientist at Achievers, the employee recognition and engagement platform, and Lidia Zekorn, director of talent and culture at FCT, the leading Canadian service provider in real-estate technology and title insurance.

The two experts asserted that HR leaders often try to be proactive and identify problems, only to be ignored, and then are suddenly thrust into the spotlight when things go wrong.

“Senior leaders are unexpectedly or understandably busy with competing priorities,” Zekorn said. “So when there’s a negative outcome, whether it be attrition in a certain department or in a certain area of the organization–or even if a high performer unexpectedly leaves the company–that’s when the questions start to come. So you can be proactive all you want, but it’s when that happens, when [C-Suite] see some sort of outcome, that’s when the questions happen.”

Key to avoiding this situation, Baumgartner and Zekorn said, is gathering up-to-date, specific data to present to C-level executives, going in armed with targeted issues and solutions supported by facts that prove how those actions will help not only company culture but also its financial and productivity goals.

Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers (Photo courtesy of Achievers)

“There are a lot of HR metrics out there that demonstrate how different initiatives can impact the bottom line, all the way from attrition to productivity,” Zekorn said. “You want to rely on this research to be your proof of concept so you can get the buy-in from the C-suite with what you need. And by buy-in, what I mean is you want the commitment. You want the understanding, the support and the engagement at the C-suite level. HR initiatives about employees–whether it’s about attrition, productivity or engagement–should not solely rest on HR shoulders. These are corporate initiatives.”

When You Have Their Attention…

Once senior executives realize a strategy, a policy, or even a tool can be good for the company, it’s much easier for widespread implementation. And following the initial buy-in, HR must carefully monitor and showcase the concrete outcomes.

“That internal data, the results that you were able to drive, is important to maintain support and built your credibility with the C-suite,” Zekorn said. “The story doesn’t end with your business case. You will continue to measure after the initiative is launched. For example, when you’re looking at measuring those turnover rates, you want to measure before and after whatever initiative you put in place. You can keep an eye on online reviews and track changing ratings, and hopefully they’ve become positive. And you can utilize surveys and feedback tools to see where employee sentiment has changed.”

The Importance of Employee Sentiment

Similar strategies should also be implemented to get C-suite interested in employee sentiment in the first place, the experts said. HR leaders need to persuade C-level executives to embrace the concepts of  “belonging” and “engagement”–and to appreciate why they genuinely matter for success.

“Why even measure? What is the business case for understanding and managing engagement?,” Baumgartner asked. “Well, over the past couple of decades, the research [has shown] numerous data points indicating the high degree of correlation between engagement and just about every positive business outcome.

“First of all, highly engaged employees are significantly less likely to leave an organization. Companies with engaged employees boast higher levels of employee commitment, and so they experienced lower attrition and greater retention,” Baumgartner said. “Research also shows that engaged employees are more productive. So by increasing engagement inside your organization, you’re also actually enhancing business results. Engaged employees are more likely to stay focused and to put in discretionary effort. They go above and beyond to achieve goals, which means that your company is more likely to be successful.

“And finally, engaged employees have higher job satisfaction,” she said. “You can be confident that a more engaged population will drive better reviews on sites like Glassdoor, with more employees feeling satisfied and therefore willing to share their sentiments online.”

Once those realities have been impressed upon senior executives, more concerted efforts can be made to gauge and bolster employee engagement.

A Boost for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging

At FCT, Zekorn said, “when we were presenting our business case for diversity, inclusion, and belonging strategy, it was very important for us to present it as a business imperative and illustrate how it aligns with our corporate priorities. We have heard that it is the right thing to do for employees, which I absolutely 100% agree. However, what cannot be lost is how it is the right thing to do for the organization as well.”

Lidia Zekorn, director of talent and culture at FCT (Photo courtesy of FCT)

In pursuing FCT’s inclusion strategy, “we held our own community circles, which are sessions that provide employees a safe space to share personal stories and to put a human face to the very real experiences that affect them inside and outside of the workplace,” Zekorn said. “It also provides direct feedback to our C-suite about how FCT can continue to drive an inclusive organization where employees feel that they belong and then finally illustrating why all of it matters: the return on investment, which is reducing turnover, improving employee satisfaction and well-being, and increasing productivity. When you have this, everyone succeeds, from the employees to the organization as a whole.”

Central to employee engagement and belonging is for leaders to listen and offer opportunities for feedback, whether it be the aforementioned “circles,” or tools such as surveys, or even just coffee chats. Employees must feel they’re properly heard and see subsequent actions demonstrating that their concerns and ideas are indeed being implemented, the experts said.

Be Careful Not to Overreach

A major pitfall, though, can be attempts to execute too many actions, they said. Instead, they advise making micro improvements with visible results. “Trying to do too much at once is a setup for failure in the world of engagement,” Baumgartner said. “So be sure to focus on just one or two areas for improvement per quarter. I know it can be overwhelming for leaders and HR professionals to look at all the feedback and the desired action from one’s organization or one’s direct team. But when you narrow down your focus to identify the single metric that you want to impact and select just one or two micro actions that will move that metric over the next couple of months, the process is simplified and you’ll be better able to prioritize actions to solve problems.”

While a sharp focus gets results, it’s important to keep an eye on the big picture too. All members of the organization, from the top down, should be provided with communication channels, values-based recognition, and a deep understanding of corporate vision and priorities. “We recommend having four to six core values that you then align everything in your culture around so that they become part of how you and your employees live and breathe at work,” Baumgartner said. “It’s simple, but it’s elegant.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar, Achievers. You can watch a video of the conversation here. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Sheila Flynn is a Denver-based journalist who has written for the Associated Press, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Daily Mail and the Irish Times. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.