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The news about the employee mood in this country appears, at first glance, to be positive. According to the 2011 Job Satisfaction and Engagement Research Report released by theSociety for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 83 percent of U.S. employees are satisfied employees, reporting overall satisfaction with their current jobs.  “In general, people find ways to be satisfied at work,” notes SHRM vice president for research Mark Schmit.

But before business owners uncork the champagne, they should take a closer look at the data.  First, the employee satisfaction rate, while high, is down from years prior.  Second, one area where employees are dissatisfied is a significant category: career development, with only 40 percent of employees reportedly happy with the career development opportunities at their jobs.  Limited advancement potential is the kind of problem that leads satisfied employees to become disengaged employees.

Satisfaction vs. Engagement

Which raises the question: is there a difference between employee satisfaction and employee engagement?  Can your employees be satisfied and disengaged with their jobs at the same time?

The answer is: absolutely.  And the distinction is critical for business owners to understand.

A satisfied employee might be perfectly content to punch in and out, performing his assigned job and nothing more.  Alternatively, an engaged employee is emotionally invested in the success of her organization and brings a certain level of passion and commitment to her job.  An engaged employee looks for meaning in her work and strives for a legacy of achievement.  As Towers Watson executive Abhishek Mittal puts it, it’s the difference between a one-way street (what can you do for me) and a two-way street (what can you do for me and what can I do in return.)

Disengagement Rampant in Corporate America

If only 40 percent of workers are happy with their employers’ career development opportunities, perhaps that explains why a different study found that 67 percent of employees are either actively disengaged or under-engaged in their jobs.  Conducted annually by human capital measurement and analysis company Modern Survey, the report noted that employee engagement rates have improved slightly since the same study last year but remain at alarmingly low levels.

When asked what they need in order to feel more engaged, participating employees reported two top desires:  senior leadership’s clear vision of where their organization is going, and the opportunity to personally grow and develop once again.  Both of these things have been stunted during the economic malaise of the last few years.

Volunteering as a Path to Engagement

So how do you keep your employees engaged even if you can’t offer specific advancement opportunities?

Amidst tough times, organizations must find other ways to continue developing the careers of their employees, at the peril of absorbing the high cost of employee disengagement.  One of the best ways to engage employees in their work is through corporate volunteer programs. Not only do these programs demonstrate civic responsibility to a company’s community and workforce, they can be designed to mirror the mission and strategic objectives of a company and create a parallel work universe offering unique opportunities.

Whether it’s lending purpose and meaning to one’s work, serving as a critical tool for employee retention and recruitment, or providing strong platforms for leadership and skills development via pro-bono service, workplace volunteer programs can help companies reach for more than high employee satisfaction rates and achieve the more important goal of a highly engaged workforce.

And an engaged workforce leads to very satisfied employers.

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