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Campers, Tourists and Prisoners

Posted by: Sarah Johnson, PhD on May 26, 2015

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A lot is made of the proportions of engaged and disengaged employees in the workforce. Consulting firms publish their own estimates on an annual or quarterly basis, and many of us in the engagement space track the trends carefully. Differences in these estimates depend on how engagement is measured, and whether employees are classified as engaged or disengaged, actively engaged or passively disengaged. Regardless of the method used the message is generally the same: The more actively or highly engaged employees a company has, the better. If the number of highly engaged employees drops, trouble looms.

Fair enough.

While it sounds good to say that all or most employees in an organization are highly engaged, might not there be value in having some number who are not?

But consider this. While it sounds good to say that all or most employees in an organization are highly engaged, might not there be value in having some number who are not? A burr under the saddle, of sorts, that can spur a change in direction or thinking, or simply inform the emperor that he is not wearing any clothes.

At a conference I recently attended I heard a company characterize employees as Campers, Tourists, or Prisoners. The more I thought about the terms the more I liked them as as a way to characterize employee populations but also how to use each group to the company’s advantage.

Campers are those employees that are completely bought in to the program, whatever that program might be. They have taken up residence, so to speak, and immersed themselves in the experience. They participate whole-heartedly in company initiatives and forever treasure their time with the company. You can count on them to know the campfire songs and all the long-standing traditions of the camp.

Tourists voluntarily come to the company because of genuine interest and curiosity, and depending on their experience they may stay for a short or long visit, but as tourists they are with you only temporarily. They bring a different perspective, and see your culture through fresh eyes. These perspectives may be harsh; they may hate your cuisine, criticize your politics and disparage your national monuments. They may be right. Others may find a new home in your culture, becoming expatriates of a sort. In either case these tourists, if valued and catered to, can bring quite a bit of economic growth to your organization. To extend the tourist analogy, countries or cities that welcome tourists are often described as cosmopolitan and vibrant. Those that close themselves to tourists or do little to value them may be described as insular backwaters.

Prisoners have no choice but to be where they are. Due to their economic or personal circumstances they believe they have no option to leave and they are doing time, waiting for the day when they are paroled. Some prisoners can be rehabilitated. They use their time in captivity wisely, studying or exercising or improving themselves. They may gladly work to improve the lives of their fellow prisoners. On the other hand, some prisoners pass the time, resistant to growth and change and resentful of their captivity.

OK, great analogy but what does it all mean? Another company at this conference bragged of a 4% voluntary attrition rate. While that sounds great on the surface it may suggest that they have large proportions of prisoners and campers, and are not a welcome spot for tourists. This organization runs the risk of not innovating enough, not being open to new ideas and shunning the notion that anyone outside the organization can provide a new or valuable perspective.

On the other hand a client of mine had a relatively high voluntary attrition rate, and a relatively large proportion of top talent left within a few years of joining. While there was value in understanding what caused these employees to leave, at the end of the day the client wasn’t terribly concerned about the high turnover rate. Turns out they are one of the top innovators in their field, and they held their doors open wide for tourists. They valued the influx of new ideas and perspectives, as it helped them continuously evaluate everything they did and avoid complacency. They were more than happy to accommodate an employee population that sought to have a job with this company on their resume much like tourists collect stamps on their passports. Were the tourists disengaged? For the most part, no. They were engaged enough to work hard and make an impression in the organization, but not engaged enough to stay for a long career.

My point with all of this is that it isn’t necessarily a good thing to have an employee population entirely made up of campers, as appealing as that may be. An employee population that is too bought in, too invested in the way things are, dare I say too engaged, could limit innovation and risk-taking. Tourists need to be welcomed and valued for the insight and intellectual capital they bring to the organization. They will provide a fresh perspective and enable campers to see what their loyalty and affiliation may have blinded them to. Tourists may not stay long, but their departure shouldn’t be viewed as a negative as long as other tourists arrive to replace them. As for prisoners, they are inevitable in any organization. Give them the opportunity to be rehabilitated, but failing that assist them in leaving the organization. Better yet examine what it is that imprisons employees that may at one time been tourists or campers.


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