Debi O’Donovan: You can only motivate staff face-to-face

When I joined Employee Benefits back in the late 1990s, there was much talk about the psychological contract.

As I made my way round the conferences, press briefings and employer meetings trying to absorb all things HR and benefits as quickly as possible, I learned that the psychological contract is the unwritten set of mutual beliefs, perceptions and informal obligations between employer and staff.

It is all the stuff not written into the formal employment contract, but is intuitively understood by both sides.

These days I hear very little of this concept, which was originally developed by organisational scholar Denise Rousseau. If it had not already been considered broken before the economic downturn of the past five years, then it would certainly have been smashed during it.

Instead, we now all talk about trying to engage employees in the workplace and spend loads of time (and perhaps some money) trying to improve employee engagement scores.

Every other benefits supplier (or so it seems) touts the idea that the service it offers can engage your staff in benefits – as though being engaged in benefits somehow leads to engaged employees. There might be a correlation between the two, but they are fundamentally different things.

Like so many human behaviours, you cannot force engagement, a psychological contract or employee motivation. All these things can be achieved only by treating employees with respect and getting to know them, their aspirations and desires.

We in HR and benefits can help to do the groundwork for this by training line managers, and steering directors away from decisions, such as unreasonably low pay rises or extortionately high bonuses, that will destroy their human capital in the long term.

I get nervous when I see management information data being substituted for getting to know staff as people. It is a useful secondary tool, but never quite replaces having a chat with someone.

I found our cover story this month both intriguing and chilling. Done well, using consumer-type data can be helpful. Done badly, and any shadow of a psychological contract will be wiped out with such Big-Brother tactics.

For myself, the good, old-fashioned ideas we raise in our special Motivation supplement are a better way to go. Staff social and sports clubs allow employees in different departments and at different levels to get to know each other.

Sometimes the old ideas are the best.

Now, who else wants to revive the psychological contract?

Debi O’Donovan
Employee Benefits

Twitter: @DebiODonovan