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Employers increasingly strive to keep workers happy

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ZeroTurnaround, a software firm in Boston, has taken workers on overseas retreats.

By Callum Borchers Globe Staff 

If the Great Market Basket Protests of 2014 proved anything, it is that employee engagement matters. A lot.

When workers are invested in their company, and believe in its vision and management, they are happy and productive. When they’re not, they just might go on strike, organize a customer boycott, or force an owner to sell the business to a bitter family rival.

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The Market Basket saga was an extreme example, of course, but employment surveys indicate most American workers are rebelling in quieter ways. Seventy percent of the US workforce is “not engaged” or “actively disengaged,” according to a Gallup study published last year.

These people are going through the motions, doing the bare minimum, surfing the Internet when they should be on task.

“There’s an epidemic,” said Ruth K. Ross, a former human resources executive and author of “Coming Alive: The Journey to Reengage Your Life and Career.” “It’s like a series of paper cuts — you don’t start out disengaged, but things happen. Maybe the job isn’t what was promised, or you’re working really hard and nobody shows any appreciation, or maybe you just feel stuck because you’ve been in the same job for so long.”

Increasingly, US companies are treating engagement as more than just a nebulous barometer of corporate culture. They are recognizing that disengagement hurts the bottom line — to the tune of about $500 billion per year nationwide, Gallup estimates — and are supporting a cottage industry of survey takers and consultants who say businesses can get more out by convincing workers to put more in.

In fact, several of the number one employers on this year’s Globe Top Places to Work survey take stock of their employees’ mindsets with regular internal surveys.

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“One of the most haunting feelings for a CEO is getting that two weeks’ notice from an employee,” said David Niu, founder of TINYpulse, a Seattle startup that administers short weekly surveys for client companies. “They want to know, ‘What could I have done to make this person stay? How can I prevent a mass exodus?’ ”

A smart strategy, specialists say, is to make employees feel that profits do not drive every decision.

Taking the entire company to Cancun may not help the bottom line, but that’s precisely the sort of thing ZeroTurnaround, a software firm in Boston, does to boost morale and reward good performance. This year’s getaway brought together 112 workers from the US and European offices for an extended version of the company’s monthly “all hands” meetings, which president Alex Laats calls “internal crowdsourcing for great business ideas.”

Notably, American workers register low engagement rates even during a sluggish economic recovery that suggests anybody with a job should be grateful to have one. Engagement levels were virtually unchanged during and after the recession of 2007 to 2009.

A tepid employment climate can actually drive down worker satisfaction, said Eric Cormier, a human resources specialist at the Waltham office of Insperity, a Houston firm that advises companies on maximizing employee performance.

“The downturn made people more likely to hold on to the jobs they have, even if they’re not happy in them,” Cormier said. “When people don’t feel like there are better opportunities out there, they tend to stay put.”

Similarly, employers are more likely to treat workers well in a competitive job market where they must constantly fight to retain talent.

A prime example is the fast-growing field of high technology, famous for the poaching that goes on among companies vying for the best programmers and designers. Silicon Valley firms’ efforts to hold on to employees have produced perks ranging from the standard beer keg and Ping-Pong table in the break room to more lavish offerings, like free massages and Hawaiian vacations.

While some Massachusetts tech companies boast generous benefit programs, others use a different retention tool: noncompete contracts that force departing workers to wait a while — often a year or longer — before joining a rival in the same industry. Such agreements are unenforceable in California.

Matthew Marx, a career development professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said noncompete contracts are an effective way to keep talent in place. But after managing engineering teams in California and Massachusetts, he concluded that carrots promote engagement better than sticks — and make bosses better leaders.

“I was more invested in how I could get people excited about the company,” Marx said of his time on the West Coast, where workers were free to jump ship. “We had a saying that you never stop hiring someone.”

Whether through Silicon Valley-style spa treatments or personal interactions with the rank and file — a la Market Basket president Arthur T. Demoulas — investing in your staff is key, said Bob Kelleher, president of the Employee Engagement Group, a Woburn consulting firm. When bosses care about workers, workers care about their jobs.

“If you engage your employees, they give above-and-beyond client service,” Kelleher said. “And if you give above-and-beyond client service, your customers are satisfied.”