9 Lessons on Employee Engagement From Willy Wonka

September 8, 2016 by

Lessons on Employee Engagement From Willy WonkaI was saddened to hear the news of Gene Wilder’s passing on August 29th, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, a terrible illness that my Father has as well. Born on June 11, 1933, in Milwaukee as Jerome Silberman, Gene Wilder touched the hearts of millions as the character Willy Wonka, in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Although the film was not a commercial success, it later gained a cult following and an Oscar Nomination for Best Score. Wilder also earned a Golden Globe award nomination.

In Wilder’s memory, I’d like to highlight nine best practice lessons on employee engagement from the movie:



1. Always aspire to be better than your competitor.
Since age eight, Wilder aimed to be an actor and worked extremely hard to do so. When he was cast for the role of Willy Wonka, he actually was chosen over both Fred Astaire and Peter Sellers. All of the companies I’ve worked with that are best-in-class on engagement are firm believers in continuous improvement, consistently raising the bar for themselves and their people.

2. Recruit the right, and diverse, people.
Violet: Well, they can’t be real people.
Willy Wonka: Why, of course they’re real people.
Mr. Salt: Stuff and nonsense!
Willy Wonka: No, Oompa Loompas.
The Group: Oompa Loompas?
Willy Wonka: From Loompaland . . . In the greatest of secrecy, I transported the entire population of Oompa Loompas to my factory here.

Fifty-nine percent of all new employees are gone by the end of their first year; obviously many mis-hires are being made by organizations.1 The best practice applied by the most engaged organizations is to use great scrutiny when making hiring decisions.

3. Become more disciplined about promoting your most Engaged Employees and getting rid of your most Disengaged Employees.
“The Egg-dicator can tell the difference between a good egg and a bad egg. If it is a good egg, it’s shined up and shipped all over the world. But if is a bad egg, down the chute.” – Willy Wonka

The Best Practice: Teach your managers to become People-dicators.

4. Encourage “Pure Imagination,” like the Wilder song in the film.
“There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination. Living there you’ll be free if you truly wish to be.” – Willy Wonka (singing)

There have been multiple studies done proving that “out-of-the-box” thinking leads to higher levels of employee engagement. In fact, 59% of Engaged Employees report that their job brings out their best creativity versus only 3% for the Disengaged Employees.2

Willy Wonka: This is the great glass Wonkavator.
Grandpa Joe: It’s an elevator.
Willy Wonka: It’s a Wonkavator. An elevator can only go up or down, but the Wonkavator can go sideways, and slantways, and longways, and backways . . .
Charlie: And frontways?
Willy Wonka: and squareways, and frontways, and any other ways you can think of.

5. Recognize that innovation and creativity do not come easy.
The most engaged organizations work very hard at it.

“Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple.” – Willy Wonka

6. Pay people fairly.
Mr. Salt: Wonka, how much do you want for the golden goose?
Willy Wonka: They are not for sale.
Mr. Salt: Name your price.
Willy Wonka: She can’t have one.
Veruca Salt: Who says I can’t?
Mr. Salt: The man with the funny hat.

As first said by the writer and academic, Leo Rolsten, “Money cannot buy happiness, but neither can poverty.” A lack of pay fairness is the second most common reason employees resign.1 Thus, it is a best practice to conduct regular salary surveys to ensure that your wage rates are competitive with the marketplace.

7. Plan for succession.
“I can’t go on forever, and I really don’t want to try. So who can I trust to run the factory when I leave and take care of the Oompa Loompas for me? Not a grown up. So that’s why I decided a long time ago that I had to find a child. A very honest, loving child, to whom I could tell all of my most precious candy making secrets.” – Willy Wonka

Companies with Succession Planning in place have higher profitability.3 They can credit the following three reasons:
• Time is Money — HR, managers and employees can complete talent management processes more efficiently, saving valuable time and generating considerable cost savings
• Lower recruiting, development and compensation costs
• Increased productivity and organizational performance

8. Have fun.
“A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.” – Willy Wonka

Since the number one reason people resign is a combination between job stress and a lack of work life balance, what better medicine than a little fun and levity.1

9. Reap and enjoy the rewards that come with building a world class culture of employee engagement.

Willy Wonka: But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.
Charlie: What happened.
Willy Wonka: He lived happily ever after.


Rest in peace, Gene Wilder.


Image source: Playbuzz.com
1: HR Solutions Exit Survey Study, 2011
2: Gallup 2015 Q12 Meta-Analysis
3: Halogen Software Succession Planning Study, 2016



Kevin Sheridan is an internationally-recognized Keynote Speaker, a New York Times Best Selling Author, and one of the most sought-after voices in the world on the topic of Employee Engagement. For five years running, he has been honored on Inc. Magazine’s top 100 Leadership Speakers in the world, as well as Inc.’s top 100 experts on Employee Engagement. He was also honored to be named to The Employee Engagement Award’s Top 101 Global Influencers on Employee Engagement of 2017.

Having spent thirty years as a high-level Human Capital Management consultant, Kevin has helped some of the world’s largest corporations rebuild a culture that fosters productive engagement, earning him several distinctive awards and honors. Kevin’s premier creation, PEER®, has been consistently recognized as a long-overdue, industry-changing innovation in the field of Employee Engagement. His first book, Building a Magnetic Culture, made six of the best seller lists including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. He is also the author of The Virtual Manager, which explores how to most effectively manage remote workers.

Kevin received a Master of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School in 1988, concentrating his degree in Strategy, Human Resources Management, and Organizational Behavior. He is also a serial entrepreneur, having founded and sold three different companies.

Email: kevin@kevinsheridanllc.com