Scope—This article provides an overview of effective practices in developing and sustaining employee engagement. It includes discussion of the concept of employee engagement, its importance to business success, drivers of employee engagement, the roles of both HR and management in engaging employees, the design of employee-engagement initiatives, and the measurement of engagement through employee surveys and other communications. Global and legal issues relating to employee engagement are also discussed. This article distinguishes between employee engagement and job satisfaction; it does not address methods of developing and sustaining job satisfaction.
The term employee engagement relates to the level of an employee’s commitment and connection to an organization. Employee engagement has emerged as a critical driver of business success in today’s competitive marketplace. High levels of engagement promote retention of talent, foster customer loyalty and improve organizational performance and stakeholder value.
This article discusses:
Employee engagement refers to the connection and commitment employees exhibit toward an organization, leading to higher levels of productive work behaviors. The modern concept of employee engagement is derived from studies that begun in the 1920s concerning morale, or the willingness of persons to accomplish organizational objectives. During World War II, U.S. Army researchers studied morale as a predictor of unity of effort and attitudinal battle-readiness. Following WWII, morale scores were used in the mass-production economy to predict worker speed and quality. Eventually, the term “employee engagement” was coined to describe a bundle of characteristics that were associated with high performers as identified in these earlier studies.
Executives from around the world say that enhancing employee engagement is one of their top five global business strategies. Not only does engagement have the potential to significantly affect employee retention, productivity and loyalty, it is also a key link to customer satisfaction, company reputation and overall stakeholder value. Increasingly, organizations are turning to HR to set the agenda for employee engagement and commitment in order to establish a competitive advantage. See SHRM Research Overview: Employee Engagement (www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/special-reports-and-expert-views/Documents/Research%20Overview%20Employee%20Engagement.pdf) and Employee Engagement: The Newest Research and Trends (www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/labor-market-and-economic-data/Documents/14-0373%20Workplace%20Visions%20Issue%202%202014_FINAL.pdf).
Most executives already understand that employee engagement directly affects an organization’s financial health and profitability. According to Gallup’s engagement survey, only 32% of workers are engaged at work; therefore, most employers have a lot of work to do to unlock the full potential of their workforce.
Engagement and productivity can be affected by social cohesion, feeling supported by one’s supervisor, information sharing, common goals and vision, communication, and trust. Employees want to feel valued and respected; they want to know that their work is meaningful and their ideas are heard. Highly engaged employees are more productive and committed to the organizations in which they work. See Employee Engagement at 25: The Work Continues (www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/0516/pages/0516-employee-engagement-at-25.aspx) and Workplaces That Enhance Performance and the Human Experience (www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/special-reports-and-expert-views/pages/kay-sargent.aspx).
Researchers and consulting firms have developed varied definitions of employee engagement. They have also created categories to describe and distinguish differing levels of worker engagement. Although the concepts of employee engagement and job satisfaction are somewhat interrelated, they are not synonymous. Job satisfaction has more to do with whether the employee is personally happy than with whether the employee is actively involved in advancing organizational goals.
Employee engagement definitions
Definitions of employee engagement range from the brief and concise to the descriptive and detailed. Many of these definitions emphasize some aspect of an employee’s commitment to the organization or the positive behaviors an engaged employee exhibits. For example, an engaged employee has been defined as one who:
Say: The employee consistently speaks positively about the organization to co-workers and to potential employees and customers.
Stay: The employee has an intense desire to be a member of the organization, despite opportunities to work elsewhere.
Strive: The employee exerts extra effort and exhibits behaviors that contribute to business success (Hewitt Associates).
What differentiates engaged and disengaged workers?
Organizations that conduct research on employee engagement categorize employees based on the employee’s level of engagement, but they have used different terminology in doing so. For example, engaged and less than fully engaged employees have been described as follows:
After an organization has segmented its population of employees (and has determined the relevant percentage of workers in each group), it can analyze demographic information to see whether group members have any other common characteristics, such as age, role or level (e.g., supervisor, manager). Organizations can then build strategies to meet their engagement needs.
How does employee engagement differ from job satisfaction?
The terms engagement and job satisfaction are often used interchangeably. However, research has revealed that although there is some overlap in the drivers of engagement and satisfaction, there are also key differences in the components that determine each.
Some experts define engagement in terms of employees’ feelings and behavior. Engaged employees might report feeling focused and intensely involved in the work they do. They are enthusiastic and have a sense of urgency. Engaged behavior is persistent, proactive and adaptive in ways that expand the job roles as necessary. Engaged employees go beyond job descriptions in, for example, service delivery or innovation. Whereas engaged employees feel focused with a sense of urgency and concentrate on how they approach what they do, satisfied employees, in contrast, feel pleasant, content and gratified. The level of employee job satisfaction in an organization often relates to factors over which the organization has control (such as pay, benefits and job security), whereas engagement levels are largely in direct control or significantly influenced by the employee’s manager (through job assignments, trust, recognition, day-to-day communications, etc.).
Extensive research has been conducted to determine the factors that influence employee engagement levels. The research has indicated that there are both organizational drivers and managerial drivers.
Some of the research identifies organization wide drivers of employee engagement. For example, research by Watson Wyatt indicates that the level of employee engagement (or disengagement) depends on how effectively the organization:
Quantum Workplace (the research firm behind the “Best Places to Work” programs in more than 40 metro areas) has identified five key factors that set companies with higher engagement scores apart from others. Such companies:
It is clear that employee engagement increases dramatically when the daily experiences of employees include positive relationships with their direct supervisors or managers. Behaviors of an employee’s direct supervisors that have been correlated with employee engagement include:
Employee Engagement: Your Competitive Advantage (www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/business-solutions/documents/engagement%20briefing-final.pdf) and SHRM 2016 Job Satisfaction and Engagement Survey
Employee engagement is influenced by many factors—from workplace culture, organizational communication and managerial styles to trust and respect, leadership, and company reputation. In combination and individually, HR professionals and managers play important roles in ensuring the success of the organization’s employee engagement initiatives.
The role of HR
To foster a culture of engagement, HR should lead the way in the design, measurement and evaluation of proactive workplace policies and practices that help attract and retain talent with skills and competencies necessary for growth and sustainability.
The role of managers
The manager’s role in employee engagement has been hotly debated. Studies showing that people leave managers, not companies, have led some HR professionals to hold supervisors responsible for engagement survey results. Management bonuses are often tied to engagement scores. However, engagement experts have suggested that the responsibility for engagement needs to be shared from top to bottom.
Middle managers play a key role in employee engagement, creating a respectful and trusting relationship with their direct reports, communicating company values and setting expectations for the day-to-day business of any organization. See Make Managers Responsible. (www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/Pages/0312tucker.aspx).
But middle managers need to be empowered by being given larger responsibilities, trained for their expanded roles and more involved in strategic decisions. If an organization’s executives and HR professionals want to hold managers accountable for the engagement levels, they should:
To increase employee engagement levels, employers should give careful thought to the design of engagement initiatives.
As HR professionals consider adopting or modifying practices or initiatives to increase employee engagement, they should:
HR practices have a significant impact on employee engagement. The following practices can increase employee engagement:
Targeted communication initiatives can enable managers and HR professionals to stay on top of employee engagement issues, get constant feedback from employees and anticipate changing needs of workforce groups. Managers and HR professionals should take advantage of opportunities to engage employees and should use varied communication methods.
Employers have numerous opportunities for “engageable moments,” when they can motivate and provide direction for employees. Watson Wyatt’s 2008/2009 WorkUSA report identified the following formal and informal “engageable moment” opportunities:2
Formal opportunities include:
Informal opportunities include:
The size, composition and expected reaction of the target group of employees should dictate the type of communication used for particular engagement activities. Some of the communications methods HR professionals and managers can use include:
Many organizations conduct workforce surveys to measure levels of employee engagement within the organization and to analyze the relationships between employee engagement and key business outcomes. The results of such surveys can identify which engagement initiatives are achieving desired goals. Surveys can be helpful in gauging the level of employee engagement, but employers need to realize that employee engagement surveys differ from other employee surveys. There are several considerations employers should keep in mind when creating and using employee engagement surveys. See A New World of Tools for Measuring Employee Engagement (www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/technology/pages/a-new-world-of-tools-for-measuring-employee-engagement.aspx).
Unique aspects of employee engagement surveys
Employee engagement surveys have a different focus than other types of employee surveys. Although employee opinion and satisfaction surveys measure workers’ views, attitudes and perceptions of their organization, and an employee culture survey measures employees’ points of view to assess whether they align with the organization or its departments, engagement surveys measure employees’ commitment, motivation, sense of purpose and passion for their work and the organization.
Creating engagement surveys
When developing employee engagement surveys, organizations should consider the following guidelines:
Using engagement surveys
After an employee engagement survey has been administered, survey data should be reviewed in aggregate and should also be broken down for each business unit to allow individual managers to make changes that will truly affect engagement levels. Some experts also advocate having line managers communicate survey results to their own employees and create action plans to respond to survey recommendations. In addition, the organization may require that all employees have engagement objectives in their performance reviews so that engagement goals are developed both from the top down and from the bottom up.
Common missteps that organizations make with engagement surveys are failing to gain senior management commitment to act on survey results and failing to use focus groups to delve into the root of negative scores or comments. To overcome those mistakes, organizations should:
The factors that drive employees to be engaged in their work vary not only from country to country but also by industry sector and within companies. Consequently, organizations that are expanding globally need to be aware of what engages their workforce in different global locations.
In looking to engage employees globally, employers should:
Adkins, A. (2016, Jan. 13). Employee engagement in the U.S. stagnant in 2015. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/188144/employee-engagement-stagnant-2015.aspx
2Hastings, R. (2009, March 4). The “what” and “why” of employee engagement. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/whatandwhy.aspx
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