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Hipsters, Tomatoes, and Employee Engagement

In recent years, retro approaches to food have come back into fashion in a big way. I’ve seen several food shops in my city offering canning and preserving classes, and keep coming across articles telling me that Aunt Mabel was totally on to something with her pickled onions. At TEDxToronto this year, I will admit that I was mystified when the audience’s biggest wave of anticipatory applause rose as Joel MacCharles of Well Preserved took the stage to talk fervently about his love of preserving and canning.

I blame hipsters. Their earnest nostalgia and revivalist zeal seems to have infected a broad swath of young urbanites with the desire to can food. Luckily the ‘lumberjack beard’ strain does not seem to be airborne…yet. But at TEDxToronto, as I sat in Koerner Hall, surrounded by many young urbanites dreamily imagining themselves tying on an apron and getting down to some good old fashioned pickling, all I could think was “Oh really?”.

I keep a long list of things that sound great, but in practice require a surprising amount of hard, messy work. Two things that I place on that list are canning food, and employee engagement.

A Tale of Two Conversations – Tomatoes and Engagement

I say this because of two separate, but similar conversations that I have on a regular basis. The first conversation is always my fault. It starts when someone asks me what I am doing on the weekend, and as is true a few times a year, I tell them that I am making tomato sauce with my fiancé’s family, who are Italian. Often the person I am talking to is a young urbanite (since I am too), and they respond thusly:

“That is so great! I think canning food is so cool. I’m really jealous!”

It doesn’t matter what I say in return, they are insistent that my weekend plans are enviable; a wistful return to better traditions, like apple picking in a J Crew ad. I restrain the urge to hipster-slap them. This conversation is why I keep telling Anthony’s family that they should charge people to help them make sauce, promoting it as a kind of ‘rustic retreat’. People would pay to go. Of course, they would never, ever come back.  That’s because canning tomato sauce from scratch is the exact opposite of a J Crew ad. It’s hot, messy, back-breaking work. The first time I went along to pitch in, four years ago, I was in the late stages of training for a half-marathon. My weekly long runs had reached 20 km, but tomato sauce making was much, much harder than that. Washing, trimming, boiling, grinding, straining, jarring, sealing and sterilizing 30 bushels of tomatoes is a huge undertaking.  It has led me to treat every jar of sauce in our house as though it is filled with precious unicorn tears.

The second distinct but similar conversation I have is the ‘engagement conversation’. You might have had this conversation too- it starts with someone (often an HR or business person) saying something along the lines of:

“It all comes back to employee engagement” or

“We are really committed to employee engagement” or

“Our product/software/training will boost your employee engagement”

Dig a little deeper into these comments and you will often find ardent devotion to the concept of employee engagement (as vague and undefined as it is), but an unfortunate lack of specific actions, metrics or planning on how it might be measured or achieved.

Employee engagement is the new ‘organic’; a poorly policed, subjective term that gets slapped on something to ensure people will open their wallets. Many organizations rush to buy surveys to assess their employees’ engagement, often with little notion of what they’ll do after that.

I’m not saying that ‘engagement’ isn’t desirable, real, or even definable or measurable, although I think these things are much more complex and nuanced than we assume, and deserving of more scrutiny than they are typically given. What I’m saying is that the vague sentimentality that many organizations bring to their discussion and efforts related to employee engagement ignore the hard truth that increasing employee engagement requires a significant commitment, not just of time and effort, but possibly a commitment to fundamentally change the way an organization manages its employees, and how those employees accomplish their work.

You Can’t Handle the Truth

The butcher by our house sells incredible cuts of meat, and posts their farmer of origin on the wall. Apparently we young urbanites love this. When I ask people why, they tell me that it’s because they want to know exactly where their meat comes from. However, when I offer to tell them about the Evisceration Department at the turkey processing facility I used to work at, they are significantly less enthusiastic. This doesn’t surprise me – it’s why I took every prospective employee for that department on a thorough plant tour before offering them a job, starting in the cold, sterile packaging department, and ending in Evisceration or on the kill line. As I learned, it turns out that people who think they want something can quickly change their mind when faced with the reality of what that thing is.

Simply talking about improving employee engagement won’t accomplish much. If organizations are going to ask employees whether they feel they’re engaged, and what could make them more so, they better be ready for the (possibly) harsh reality reflected in their answers, and for then getting down to the messy, hard work of addressing their findings. This takes sustained commitment and effort, and should not be undertaken lightly. It’s a ‘30 bushels of tomatoes’ kind of challenge.

Finally, for anyone who fancies making tomato sauce from scratch – feel free to come along next summer, but only if you commit to the full sweaty 10 hour day. Like improving employee engagement, you need to be in for the long haul.

Image Credit The Bitten Word via Flickr Creative Commons

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jane – as always you are bang on with this post. People are often nostalgic or wistful about the romanticized version of something, which when you break it down to its essence is just plain ole hard work.

    I also thank you for the best word of 2013: “hipster-slap”.


    November 11, 2013
  2. Thanks Julie. I know that you’ve given more than a passing thought to hipsters 😉 so I’d be curious to know what you envisioned when you read ‘hipster-slap’…I pictured someone removing one thrift store glove, slapping someone across the face with it, and then haughtily twirling one side of their ironic handlebar mustache.

    November 11, 2013
  3. Jane, Jane, Jane,,,,that would be a “thriftster”. A Hipster would remove a glove that they recently knitted themselves using home-spun wool. and after adjusting their mustache (which is bang on), I believe they would have to re-adjust their ironic “nerd” glasses.

    Oh to be Gen X and perfect.


    November 12, 2013
  4. Hi Jane:
    I enjoyed the creativity and grit of this post on employee engagement. Nice post for Remembrance Day! We should never forget the work involved in engagement or tomatoes! I featured this post on the home page of the Employee Engagement Network: with encouragement for people to come here to read the full piece. Thanks.

    November 14, 2013
  5. Thank you David, that is very kind and I certainly do appreciate it!

    November 16, 2013
  6. “It has led me to treat every jar of sauce in our house as though it is filled with precious unicorn tears.” Pure Poetry!

    November 23, 2017

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