1. Introduction: Engagement Is Tied to Business Outcomes

In a competitive and rapidly changing market, access to the best talent can spell the difference between sustained growth and prolonged struggle. And for all the talk about lean operations and working smarter, not harder, business owners understand that their companies' productivity and profitability will be driven not by slogans, but by employee performance.

With that in mind, business owners would do well to add employee engagement to their list of priorities. What would an investment in employee engagement cost your company? A better question may be what price you'd pay for neglecting to invest in employee engagement initiatives.

A 2013 Gallup Business Journal article put a price tag on the question: "Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity per year." The company has completed eight meta-analyses of the impact of employee engagement on key business outcomes. The most recent research, conducted in 2012, found a correlation between employee engagement and such performance outcomes as absenteeism, turnover, shrinkage, safety incidents, quality defects, customer ratings, productivity, and profitability.

The conclusion? "Gallup's extensive research shows that engagement, as measured by Gallup's Q12 employee engagement survey, is strongly connected to business outcomes essential to an organization's financial success, including productivity, profitability, and customer engagement."

2. Engage, Then Hire

Experts advise that successful workforce engagement begins before employees join your company and should be reflected in your recruitment efforts. One consideration is your strategy for seeking job applicants. Ads and postings on social media are two components of a hiring campaign, but an employee referral program can be a more effective means of identifying and attracting applicants who will be a good fit for the company.

Staff members who refer friends are also recommending you as an employer and are likely to have a strong understanding of and commitment to your core business principles and values. Their feelings of connection to the company can only grow if they work alongside people they like and respect. And because they know what you need from your workforce, their recommendations can guide you to applicants who have not only the right education, skills, and experience, but also the right personality for working within your culture--which can be the key to their success and yours.

3. The Culture Component

"Matching the person to the culture is absolutely critical," says Anne Bruce, speaker and co-author (with Brenda Hampel) of Talent Assessment and Development Pocket Tool Kit: How to Get the Most out of Your Best People and (with Erika Lamont) Talent Selection and Onboarding Tool Kit: How to Find, Hire, and Develop the Best of the Best (both McGraw-Hill 2014). "There are a number of ways you can interview for attitude. You have to remember that attitude is about behavior. How do people behave?"

That's something you can assess during interviews, she says, if you "stay out of the 'woulds.'" Instead of asking them to improvise answers to questions about what they would do in a hypothetical business scenario, ask them to describe the way they handled a real-life example of a situation they might encounter at your company. Their answers will offer insights into their problem-solving skills, grace under pressure, and character.

Another tactic that Bruce recommends is asking an employee who isn't part of the recruitment process--such as your receptionist--to provide feedback about the applicant. You can learn a good deal about candidates by considering their behavior toward prospective team members who don't have hiring power.

4. Recognition and Rewards

Just as staff referrals can increase your company's recruitment success, employee recognition programs can strengthen employee engagement, productivity, and job satisfaction--each of which can help drive business growth. Yet a May 2013 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)/Globoforce study found that "while an overwhelming majority (94 percent) of organizations believe positive feedback has an impact on improving employee performance, many companies still do not use these tactics. Nearly one out of five organizations (19 percent) did not have an employee recognition program."

That means you can create a degree of competitive advantage as both an employer and a business owner by launching and maintaining a system for recognizing employee initiative.

SHRM's 2014 report, Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement: The Road to Economic Recovery, included the results of a survey that revealed which aspects of job satisfaction were rated "very important" by employees. While overall compensation and pay ranked first and was chosen by 60 percent of those surveyed, opportunities to use your skills and abilities tied with job security for second place and were cited by 59 percent of respondents. And employees' relationship with their immediate supervisor scored ahead of both benefits and the organization's financial stability. "The work itself," "communication between employees and senior management," and "management's recognition of employee job performance" ranked just behind, with each identified as a priority by at least 50 percent of those surveyed.

In the report's executive summary, SHRM notes, "Although many employees emphasize compensation/pay as it relates to job satisfaction, a significant proportion also place importance on relationships with co-workers and supervisors. Fostering an environment that treats all employees equally, as well as one that encourages communication between all levels of workers, can be an effective means of earning trust from employees and increasing their satisfaction with their jobs."

5. Communication and Connection

By forging strong relationships and communication channels, your company can hit those workplace satisfaction and performance targets. You'll also be more likely to retain your top talent. "People leave people," Bruce says. "They don't leave companies."

It's essential to ensure that those communication channels run in two directions--that employees have a clear understanding of your expectations and job performance standards, but that they also feel welcome to offer insights, suggestions, and critiques. They see your business operations from a perspective with which you don't have direct access, so their ideas have the potential to help you address challenges that might not come to your attention without their input. To maximize employee engagement, make sure they know that their feedback and ideas matter and are valued.

Those ideas can extend to improvements in or changes to the way the company treats its staff members. The 2011 SHRM® Employee Job Satisfaction Research Report found that 43 percent of organizations use surveys to determine employee job satisfaction. Your business can design surveys that not only gauge that metric, but also invite suggestions that could improve your performance on this benchmark. Part of employee engagement involves asking the people who work for you what would make them happier and more productive on the job and implementing their requests where practical.

6. Participation and Performance

In the end, employee engagement doesn't have a price tag. You can't buy it with salary increases and bonuses; although those are an important component of appropriate rewards, they won't make employees happy to wake up and go to work every morning. In some cases, you may find that by meeting their needs, you not only demonstrate concern for your team, but also implement policies or practices that contribute to increases in efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

And if you can advance to best practice in workforce engagement, you'll find that employees' interests and those of the business coalesce. And this can foster a company-wide sense of ownership of challenges and achievements and the drive to advance individual performance and sustainable business growth.

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