The right job fit is key to employee engagement

By Mike Cook
The Bellingham Business Journal

I had one of my best-ever employment experiences, working for the least amount of money, in the summer of 1961. Back then the minimum wage was $1.15 an hour. I was getting paid $1 an hour, but since it was a restaurant (albeit a drive-in) and we could eat for free, I guess the owners thought that made up the $.15 per hour difference.

The place was called Dog N Suds, need I say more about the quality of this establishment? These were the boom years of fast food and ours offered walk up service for hot dogs, burgers, fries and milkshakes.

I’ve had many jobs between then and now but hardly any were as much fun. The owners hired us one at a time, tested us out and then when satisfied asked if we had any friends we thought would be reliable employees. Eventually there were four of us.

We worked split shifts that summer, arriving at 9 a.m. to do the morning set up. Two of us would leave at 1 p.m. and then return at 5 p.m. and stay until closing at 11 p.m.

What could possibly have been so much fun?

Eventually the owners, two brothers, seemed to think we could handle things, so they left us alone to run the operation. At 15 we were doing the cooking, sandwich preparation, making milkshakes, handling the money, doing final clean up and locking the place up at least five nights a week with no adults around.

Each night just before closing we’d make our sandwiches and grab a soda or milkshake, lock up, and then sit on the curb outside and share our experience of the day while eating our late-night meal. Honestly, it was the best.

Looking back, I can see that what we all responded to was the opportunity to have that level of responsibility. We were trusted, we had responsibility, we managed ourselves, did our own shift exchanges, took turns with the various roles and in general acted like owners. As simple as it was, it took another twenty years before I had another working situation where I had so much autonomy or where I think I was that engaged in my work.

Fast forward to 2017. The American workforce has more than 100 million full-time employees. One-third of those are what the most recent Gallup, State of the American Workforce Report calls “engaged at work.” They love their jobs and make their organization and America better every day.

At the other end, 16 percent of employees are actively disengaged — they are miserable in the workplace and destroy what the most engaged employees build. The remaining 51 percent of employees, over 50 million people, are not engaged — they’re just there.

Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. $483 billion to $605 billion each year in lost productivity.

While things have really changed a great deal since 1962, the essentials of workforce engagement remain the same.

Consider what the Gallup Report offers as causes for employees leaving their jobs, determined by responses in exit interviews:

  • career growth opportunities
  • pay and benefits
  • manager or management
  • company culture
  • job fit

In 1962 those summer jobs satisfied us because they paid OK, offered lots of responsibility and little if any management, let us establish a culture that worked for us, and offered us jobs that were a fit for our 15-year-old abilities. However, as we matured, we wouldn’t have been happy for long as our interest in career growth and increased pay and benefits would have not been met for long.

Of the five factors that Gallup identifies as discouragers of engagement I am inclined to think that “job fit” today is more important than in 1962. In the Gallup survey 60 percent of respondents said that the ability to do what they do best was very important to them.

Here’s your dilemma as a manager or employer. Historically you’ve been looking for people who could do the work you have to offer.

More and more employers are learning that engagement is a function of fit and are spending more time learning about employees’ talents, interests and aspirations rather than simply can they perform the work you have available. Better fit means better performance and engagement takes care of itself.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at

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