Doing the Right Thing Drives Engagement

A guest column by John Berger, Director, People Development, SONIC Drive-In

Well documented and discussed in business literature is the importance of employee engagement in the workforce. Measures of engagement have been empirically linked to the positive types of behavior (higher effort and commitment to tasks, role and company) that most employers desire. While there are competing views on exactly how to measure employee engagement, there is agreement that most measures reflect some element of “company pride” as a primary contributing factor of engagement. In fact, in some cases, “pride in one’s company” can represent as much as a third of the engagement construct.

Earlier this year, a series of unusually strong storms affected central Oklahoma, creating unspeakable damage and an unprecedented need for community outreach. Homes and businesses were destroyed and lives were forever changed in a matter of moments as tornadoes ravaged several towns and communities.

Sonic logoAs a company with a proud history in the affected region, it was clear that SONIC had an obligation to respond and support our friends and neighbors in need. Originally founded in Oklahoma in 1953, SONIC has grown into “America’s Drive-In” with more than 3,500 locations coast-to-coast, headquartered in Oklahoma City.

So it was natural for our organization to react quickly to this disaster.  Our integrated approach included four kinds of support.  First, we helped victims and first responders by delivering bottled water and meals as well as bags of ice to preserve fresh food supplies.  We also offered victims and first responders discounted and in some cases, free meals at our restaurants.

Second, we organized and coordinated volunteer opportunities for our employees through agencies like the United Way and the Salvation Army.  SONIC team members from our headquarters and local stores were provided with opportunities to support disaster relief efforts in the wake of the storms.

Third, we conducted a number of creative fund-raising efforts to support the rebuilding work, including creating and selling a custom T-shirt bearing the SONIC logo, a map of Oklahoma, and the slogan “This Is Our Home,” as well as conducting a SONIC ice cream eating contest at our headquarters with eating utensils auctioned off to benefit the recovery efforts.  Perhaps most unique of all, our I.T. team conducted online auctions of used computer equipment (laptops, routers, projectors, etc.) to raise additional funds for disaster relief.

Finally, SONIC has provided matching fund contributions to the SONIC Disaster Relief Fund, which supports company employees who have lost their homes or been otherwise affected by disasters.

This multi-pronged approach has been supported by a coordinated communication effort to ensure that employees were aware of all that was being done to support the needs of the community. The outreach includes communication with our franchisees via electronic communication; regular stories in our weekly employee newsletter; special updates about opportunities to support the relief efforts; and broad-based communications via press releases and other public media.

This coordinated and integrated approach would not have been possible without an infrastructure and strategy in place to match a strong culture of community and social responsibility. At SONIC, we consider our internal communication as a key element in our efforts to build a strong and positive corporate culture.

Not only was our response the right thing to do, but it allowed our organization to meet our employees’ desire to be involved in the community and feel linked to disaster recovery efforts. Throughout our headquarters was a strong sense of pride for the company.  Comments like “I feel so proud to work for a company that responded so quickly when our community needed it the most” were widespread.  And franchisees and Drive-In employees responded in overwhelming numbers, showing that, despite our geographic diversity, SONIC is one company with a single community-oriented culture.

An unintended but notable outcome is that by “doing the right thing” in the worst of circumstances, the company created a strong level of pride and commitment that will translate to higher engagement levels over time. With tragedies (both natural and unnatural) increasingly ever-present in the news, a company’s strategic and proactive approach to community and social responsibility can allow it to harness the collective energy of a proud and engaged workforce by providing the coordination and focus for employees to have a greater impact than they otherwise might have in times of need.

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