In 1938, with the price of diamonds slashed by the Great Depression, De Beers launched a marketing campaign to establish the custom of diamond engagement rings. There was no prior tradition of this; engagement rings date back to Roman times and beyond, but only 10% of 1930s engagement rings held a diamond. The De Beers promotion was so successful that 50 years later 80% of brides-to-be wore a diamond ring; it became the convention.
One has to admire the vision of De Beers; and the success of their comprehensive business strategy. By contrast, for employee engagement there is no object or custom (created by marketers or otherwise) that demonstrates a stage of commitment. Perhaps the very idea of being committed to an employer would benefit from a new image. The phrase “employee engagement” can conjure up images of unread 130 question surveys; lacklustre fist bumps in the company conference room; or arch Dilbert cartoons featuring the Catbert, the evil HR Director. So what could be learnt from De Beers’ approach to a different state of engagement? What expertise would we take into our employee engagement approach from the team who redefined the way we look at – and feel about – a diamond ring?
Copywriter Frances Gerety created the line “A diamond is forever” for De Beers in the 1940s (in 1999 Advertising Age magazine proclaimed it their slogan of the century). How many organisations state their purpose in such a compelling and memorable way? If an employee’s engagement to an organisation is to be achieved and sustained, then surely the statement of organisational purpose has to be captivating. Contemporary company purpose statements include:
- Helping people achieve their ambitions – in the right way. 
- The happiness of all members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.
- To inspire and nurture the human spirit.
- We aim to provide people the world over with products that are good for them and good for others.
- Building a better future for all through football.
Which of these resonate with you? Why is that? Can you remember the purpose statement of your own organisation? An organisation’s purpose statement should be designed to lead the strategic framework beneath it with authenticity and efficacy. Engagement starts with the crafting of these critical words, intended to connect the motivations of all employees to the future state it envisages – “a better future”, “happiness of all members”, “people achiev[ing] their ambitions” etc. Frances Gerety achieved this in “A diamond is forever” which simply links eternity and sentiment.
The copywriter is a key ally in enhancing employee engagement.
De Beers knew when it was winning. Every diamond engagement ring sold was evidence of success. However, organisations often have such a breadth of performance measures that it can be unclear whether they are succeeding or not; a lack of clarity which distances employees from employer. And are the measures chosen the right ones? In a recent NHS review patients were asked what factor made the greatest difference to their experience in hospital. Their top answer was “the kindness of nurses”; not a KPI that NHS managers were measured against.
What place is there on the organisational performance report card for employee engagement, and other human capital measures? Many business measures are lagging indicators, reporting on what has been delivered (i.e. revenue, sales, inventory turnover). Leading indicators measure the source of future performance such as high customer satisfaction, or research and development progress. Human capital measures, such as the levels of retention of high-performing individuals, learning and development investment, career progression, demographics, diversity, and employee engagement also demonstrate the organisation’s current capability for future achievement.
The analyst is invaluable in any employee engagement enterprise.
De Beers unfailingly taught consumers how to evaluate a diamond using the 4 Cs: Cut, Clarity, Colour and Carat Weight. Organisations are similarly critically appraised, and often they give us the definition by which they are to be assessed: “Quality, Value, Service”; “Vorsprung durch Technik” or “Reassuringly expensive”. Whether employee, consumer or supplier, we judge an organisation by our experience of it; but in the employment journey there is the most complete examination. Employees judge the extent that this is embedded throughout an organisation’s culture in practice – the way things get done around here every day.
When it is successfully realised, job-seekers will feel this proposition alive on both the company website and on glassdoor.com (where in 2014 1M UK visitors compared employees’ experiences of an organisation in the same way they did holiday experiences on tripadvisor.com). From these results job-seekers will decide whether to apply for a role with that employer. Job candidates will gauge their experience of an organisation whilst registering at reception; being questioned during their interview; or comparing their psych assessment feedback within their network. From this data job candidates will decide whether to accept a job offer. Employees feel it during day 1’s orientation or day 1000’s appraisal; and alumni will describe it to friends and family. This experience creates life-long brand advocates or opponents.
To appraise our organisation and identify the factors by which it should pride itself – and be judged by others – the jeweller’s Loupe (the magnifying eyepiece through which the 4 Cs of a diamond are examined) is vital to the employee engagement kitbag.
De Beers’ 1930s advertising campaign defined the investment in an engagement ring as one month’s salary. An ingenious definition that was scalable through the relative income levels of their consumers. What investment do we expect from leaders within our organisations, and how does this scale through an organisational hierarchy? Well, it is leaders’ choice of behaviours that will steer organisational culture. Specifically senior managers have to role model these chosen behaviours consistently; only then will these behaviours have credence and be replicated. For instance, if openness and accessibility are amongst the chosen behaviours, then employees will expect regular “Ask the CEO” sessions to be diarised (and not cancelled); for leaders’ high-level diaries to be shared internally (i.e. showing planned office or customer visits); and for all employees regardless of seniority to turn left together towards business class or right together towards economy when getting on a business flight.
Every team leader translates the strategic plan and the chosen behaviours into the day-to-day experience of his or her team members. Favouritism is perceived when one manager provides a different approach to their peers: whether in the appraisal process, bonus %, car grade, or expenses procedure. Without a compelling reason for variation, team members will see injustice.
The investment required from leaders needs to be defined and impressed into any organisation focussed on employee engagement. It is through the repetition of appropriate action that we build belief in an individual or an organisation. We judge what is done, not what is said. Therefore as De Beers chose one month’s salary as the measure of investment in a diamond engagement ring, leaders can choose to review their own action each month and reflect whether they are behaving as the organisation requires them to.
De Beers was faced with a major business challenge with the collapse of diamond prices in the 1930s and from many possible responses worked through the information to choose one clear business opportunity: the diamond engagement ring. Similarly, an effective employee engagement study will identify a myriad of issues and has to graft through quantitative and qualitative data to decide the appropriate change. The action chosen should deepen employee engagement to the organisation’s purpose and strategy. (This is dependent on the organisation’s capacity for change at that point.)
When the engagement study identifies a lack of investment in employee development, the strategic plan should describe that capability which the organisation should invest in for future success. If a paucity of teamwork and collaboration is clear, the strategic plan will outline those projects which will increase cohesion. Where governance is insufficient, then the strategic plan clarifies the standards of which the organisation wants to be proud. Whether leadership, recognition, reward, communication, progression or many of the most common topics that engagement studies perennially raise, the strategic plan gives us the framework for our engagement actions.
Therefore, from De Beers’ approach in the 1930s we should learn to simplify employee engagement actions. While it is unlikely that one approach will be sufficient, a select number of initiatives -thoroughly implemented and aligned to the organisational strategy – will have the greatest impact.
Ring the changes
Whilst we may be impressed – or indeed outraged – at how the modern-day engagement ring tradition was constructed, this took De Beers decades to achieve. Similarly organisations can choose how to evolve themselves, and therefore choose what is at the core of their employee engagement. Customers, investors, partners and governing authorities will steer such progress, but employees have the critical voice. Organisational leaders must then decide what they want to be true about their organisation’s identity and reputation.
From the De Beers diamond ring story, organisations committed to employee engagement can learn the skill of the copywriter; the acumen of the analyst; the scrutiny of the jeweller’s Loupe; the rigour of the one-month measure; and the requirement to identify simple strategically-aligned actions when faced by complex situations.
Utilising a skilled network and applying appropriate tools to create and sustain employee engagement to organisational purpose and strategy. Now, that does have a ring to it.
 John Lewis Partnership
 Marks & Spencer
 Stella Artois