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It's not about the M&Ms

Music powers me through life. It calms my nerves, raises my spirits and fills me with a warm glow of nostalgia...all within the same Funk & Soul playlist. Music can also open my mind to new ideas and inspirations; as a full-fledged funkateer, I instead looked to the lessons of rock legends Van Halen when researching this article. Yes, really!

When the band went on tour, Van Halen had it written in their concert contracts that there must be no brown M&Ms backstage. A folly? A whim? A demonstration of diva-like demands? Absolutely not!

In a 2012 interview, David Lee Roth explains the genius of this specific clause and how it efficiently signalled imminent danger. "Van Halen was the first to take 850 par lamp lights - huge lights - around the country and at the time, it was the biggest production ever" Roth explains. "If I saw brown M&Ms on the catering table, then I guarantee the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we would have to do a serious line check of the entire stage setup".

Having been one of the architects of this elaborate lighting and staging design, Roth knew only too well the dangers involved; alerting all parties to the systems and controls in place to mitigate the risks. The full technical specification was detailed within the concert contract, a legal document that all parties were expected to consider, clarify, then commit to -legally binding each other to agreed terms and conditions. So, why the need for the rider?

Well, despite all best efforts to control risks with compliance, there can never be a 100% guarantee that all dangers have been eliminated. Unsurprisingly, the weakest link in any risk management framework is usually human. Brown m&ms backstage meant someone had failed to keep up their end of the bargain, signalling the activation of fail-safe procedures in order to revert back to safer conditions. Like a 'canary in a coal mine', 'rats fleeing a sinking ship', or 'raised red flags', Roth identified 'brown m&ms backstage' as a recognisable indicator, triggering an urgent re-assessment of the risks, before any harm was caused.

There have been notable cases in the music industry where ignoring safety standards or overlooking risk management controls led to devastating consequences. Curtis Mayfield was paralysed in a freak accident that his son attributes to the

e on the part of the concert promoters, Keith Richards explains the lack of consideration given when

at the 1969 Altamont Speedway Free Festival, and insufficient communication about that night's pyrotechnics display, led to Metallica's James Hetfield suffering his horrific on-stage injuries. Roth's inspection of the candy stash was integral to the safety of all those present at Van Halen's performances.

The ISO identified that an engaged, energised and enabled workforce are integral to an

. But in a recent Gallup poll, a heart-stopping 83% of the UK workforce feel neither engaged, energised nor enabled at work! Disengaged employees make 100 times more errors than their engaged colleagues and are more likely to exhibit non-compliant behaviours, whether they are motivated into deliberate acts of non-compliance or unintentional stumbles into complacency. The impact of disengagement is significant: productivity stalls, innovation is stunted, and service levels become sub-standard. More alarming, an organisation with a disengaged workforce are at greater risk of being hit harder by external threats when non-compliance affects the resilience of its systems and controls.

Fail-safe procedures are established as part of an organisation's Incident Management Plan, but how efficiently can they be activated if employee disengagement is the cause? Many businesses now conduct quarterly pulse surveys, gaining employee feedback on specific projects, initiatives etc and what impact they have on fluctuating engagement levels. But quarterly isn't efficient enough to offset the dangers of non-compliance. We need recognisable indicators like Van Halen's 'brown m&ms backstage' and personally, I think it's much easier to identify employee disengagement from simple observations.

I've started a list of recognisable indicators that may either be the cause or effect of disengagement; signalling an immediate response to re-assess the risks.


Have you conducted a Team Check-In recently? Not a morning meeting that sets out the tasks required for completion; not the weekly catch up where updates are shared and expectations are exchanged. This Team Check-In can be completed in moments and by any member of the team:

The most obvious signs of disengagement are the silences. Where once the workplace was a hive of thriving activity, but now it's like individual hamsters focused only on their own wheel, we're looking at a danger zone. Employees that are no longer inclined to share their thoughts, express their feelings or dedicate time to ask about each other are less likely to value how their individual responsibilities impact the shared organisational strategy.


The employees celebrated for remember them, right? They featured heavily across the branding, actively promoting the business as an 'Employer Of Choice'. They were applauded for their commitment to community engagement. They regularly worked cross-departmentally to encourage social learning and sharing best practice. Whatever happened to them...?

Peer motivation is recognised as the

on engagement levels and the number one reason for employees to go the extra mile at work. If the organisation has been unable to retain these brand ambassadors, if they quickly disappeared or quietly faded in to grey, that red flag should be flying!


Okay, hear me out on this one...

First of all, who doesn't like cake? Seriously, who?! Homemade, shop bought, spectacularly decorated or scrumptiously delicious, most of us can find an excuse for cake and for many workplaces, cake is as essential as coffee. When an organisation can only demonstrate their corporate culture with a collection of Coffee Morning photos, does this set them apart from any other workplace? They may as well showcase the kettle!

In their 2018 study Recognition & Other Workplace Efforts to Engage Employees,

highlighted that 34% of HR Professionals raised Culture Management as a top challenge and are using a variety of programs to influence corporate culture. With 'Corporate citizenship or charity' right up there at 44%, I believe that organisations could better promote their culture with examples of community engagement, volunteering opportunities or young enterprise partnerships etc. If they have no such examples, unfortunately they can only celebrate cake.


When the UK Government first launched the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017, it required businesses that had an annual wage bill greater than £3 million to co-invest 0.5% of their salary spend in to adult learning development opportunities. This should be an incredible way to upskill new and existing employees, giving school leavers access to early careers experience, supporting community re-employment programs, while succession planning can be enhanced with degree level courses. Employers have 24 months to spend on staff development; use it or lose it reminders were repeatedly sent when the first expiry date was due. As the UK experiences the same digital skills shortage as many other countries, how shocking to find that

funding expired from the pot in September 2019 ?!

Employees have many reasons why they want to develop their skills - performance improvement, career progression, enhance their understanding of the business strategy to name but a few. It's important that access to development opportunities are clearly communicated across the organisation and their schedule has the flexibility to incorporate time for study.

In summary, these are just the start of the list. There are many more recognisable indicators of employee disengagement and can be linked to Towers Watson's 5


What red flags or brown m&ms help you efficiently identify employee disengagement; what can be done to offset the risk? Please share your insights and ideas in the comments below.

What is Imagimont?

I'm Jo, a Freelance Learning Experience Designer at Imagimont Ltd. With a creative flair and commitment to engagement, I manage development projects that align to the organisation’s culture, values and business strategy. Partnering with internal stakeholders and external providers, I deliver blended learning resources fully accessible using multimedia at the point of need. My commercial awareness, UK Regulatory Compliance expertise and 10 years’ experience as a People Development Specialist ensure that learning initiatives evolve as quickly as service expectations.


to find out more.

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