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How to Hire Highly Engaged Employees

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… if a person isn’t internally motivated to do the work you want done, the person will wind up being in the 68% of your disengaged workforce.

Chapter I – Last Wednesday AM

Last week was a strange one. I started off bored stiff. Unwilling to get to work, and when there, just went through the motions. However, I had a slight spark on Wednesday leading a workshop for LinkedIn on how to help SMBs (small, mid-sized businesses) compete for talent with the BBBs (big and bigger businesses). One of the participants asked how his company could hire highly engaged employees. My response in a minute since this is just the first chapter in this story.

Chapter II – Last Wednesday PM

Things started to get interesting that evening while waiting for a flight in Orange County to San Jose (both CA). Somehow someone somewhere must have known I was thinking about employee engagement. As I flipped open Flipboard there was a cover story from Gallup with the rather sensational, at least to me, headline: Majority of U.S. Employees Not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014. My first thought, “I’m not alone. It’s probably the weather or Deflategate.”

The article itself was rather depressing. Less than 32% of the U.S. workforce was engaged, 51% were not engaged and 18% were actively disengaged.

Chapter III – A Week Prior to Last Week

The week before these two events happened, a co-worker from 15 years ago out-of-the-blue suggested we meet for coffee. We scheduled a meet-up for this past Friday. I didn’t remember the co-worker too well although the name was familiar. I actually thought the person was a college fraternity brother. Boy was I wrong. He now provides leadership training to companies around the world on how to increase employee engagement! He found his work inspirational. He even inspired me to write this article.

Chapter IV – Last Friday

During our conversation he asked me for advice on how to hire highly engaged employees. It was the same advice I gave during the Wednesday webcast. In fact, it’s the same advice I’ve been giving since I became a successful headhunter in the 1980s. It went something like this:

Adler’s Avuncular Wisdom on How to Hire Highly Engaged Employees

To hire highly engaged people, only hire people who are already highly motivated to do what you want done.

Here’s how you do this:

  • First, recognize that motivation to do the actual work required is not the same as being motivated to get the job or being motivated some of the time to do some of the work.
  • If you don’t clarify job expectations before you hire the person, it’s problematic if the person will be motivated to perform the actual work you want done. If you know someone who’s ever taken a job and discovered it wasn’t what he or she thought it was going to be, you have personal experience with this common hiring problem.
  • Rather than use skills- and experience-laden job descriptions to define the work and advertise your jobs, prepare performance-based job descriptions that clarify the job expectations upfront. (Note: not doing this is the root cause of hiring the wrong people.)
  • In your recruitment advertising highlight the work that needs to be done and the impact it will have. This will attract people – even passive candidates – who are motivated to do the work you want done. (Note: this is actually commonsense disguised as rocket science for marketing.)
  • Ask the Most Significant Accomplishment question 3-4 times and find out where the person proactively took the initiative to get things done. Have all of the other interviewers do the same thing. During the debriefing session look for a pattern of where the person went the extra mile, wouldn’t quit, took the initiative and did more than required. This is the work that the person’s will do without needing to be energized or reengaged. Then compare this to the actual work that needs to be done.
  • Use our talent scorecard to evaluate and compare candidates. This form embodies our hiring formula for success, essentially: ability times motivation squared equals results. Point: if the person isn’t internally motivated to do the work you want done, the person will wind up being in the 68% of your disengaged workforce.

Chapter V – Summary

Hiring highly motivated employees is simple. Just define the work you want done before you hire the person. Then find people who are highly motivated to do this work.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He’s also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn’s Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.