Only about half of financial services employees responding to a recent survey said they intend to stay with their employers for the long term; only about half believe they have a promising future with their companies; and only about half would recommend their companies as great places to work. Those are three of the five measures (the other two are taking pride in the company and going “above and beyond” to help the company succeed) that, taken together, make up Modern Survey’s Employee Engagement Index, which reveals employees’ level of engagement with their companies. Modern Survey reported the results after surveying 300 full-time financial services employees in May 2010.

“The pattern we are seeing in the financial services industry is in line with the pattern we have seen for the overall U.S. workforce,” says Don MacPherson, president of Modern Survey, an online survey company and consultancy. “But within financial services, the declines in engagement are much more dramatic.” Indeed, this year’s survey revealed 29 percent of financial services employees to be disengaged, a statistically significant increase of 18 percent over the number of disengaged employees in the previous survey, conducted in May 2009. Fully 62 percent of financial services employees are now disengaged or “under-engaged,” the survey found.

Tough Times
“The first thing that strikes me about the results is that timing is an enormous factor,” says Delores Freitag, assistant vice president at LIMRA. “The first survey covered the period from May 2008 to May 2009; the second, May 2009 to May 2010. That’s in the middle of the financial collapse.”

Modern Survey’s MacPherson also views the results in context. “I’m not surprised engagement has declined,” he says, “but I am surprised by how dramatically it has declined. Executives in the financial services industry should see this as a wake-up call.”

That’s because engaged employees are critical to corporate health. “There is much research that suggests where engagement goes so goes retention,” says Freitag. “Where you have engaged employees, you have higher retention, higher profitability, and higher productivity. What is an engaged employee? It’s someone who is 100 percent committed to what he or she does.”

The question for companies is how to develop and maintain that engagement. One current deficiency, Freitag says, is how new employees are brought on board. “Very few companies have an ‘on-boarding’ system,” she says. “I’m not talking about orientation and benefits enrollment. On-boarding evolves over the first year of an agent’s life with the company.

“I’m also not talking about initial training, which most companies do well. But that lasts a few weeks or months and then the structure goes away. If you extend it out to a full 12 months, you can impact retention.” The key, she continues, is “structured socialization.” Meetings and events are part of this mission, from local “peer-to-peer” activities to regional networking opportunities to enterprisewide gatherings where senior executives roll out short- and long-term goals.

Keeping Top Agents
Lately Freitag has been giving presentations that start off with this fact from The Corporate Board and Aberdeen Research: 86 percent of employees are still wrestling with their decision to join a company six to eight months after being hired. “That’s an amazing statistic,” she says. “We do a great job in the recruiting stage, until we close the deal. You feel so good when you get an agent to sign on the dotted line, you think it’s done. It’s not done. Really top performers are always weighing their options.”

MacPherson believes financial services companies must address this urgently. For the first time, financial employees’ “intent to stay” with their companies comes in at a lower percentage in Modern Survey’s report than the national average. “Where this matters most is with your high potentials,” he says. “In an economy like this, those will be the first ones to leave—other organizations are going to cherrypick them.”

Freitag tells the story this way: High-performing agents in general say they don’t need anything from their managers to do their jobs. But when agents jump ship, they often describe a situation in which they slowly developed a relationship with another manager who was wooing them while the current manager was “leaving them alone.”

“Salespeople need that high-touch management,” Freitag says. As MacPherson describes it, high-touch management means consistently showing appreciation for employees. “And for direct leaders, it should include one-on-one meetings, conversations around career development, and attention to personal accomplishment,” he says. “Senior leaders should focus on communicating the future of the organization. Meetings and events can be extremely helpful in accomplishing this, especially for large organizations. Anytime a CEO or executive team can get together in person to communicate the future of the organization, it’s a good thing.”