Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement

Developing and Sustaining Employee



Mar 17, 2017



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:

  • The business case in support of employee engagement initiatives.
  • The nature and drivers of employee engagement.
  • The roles of HR and management in engaging employees.
  • Guidelines for developing effective employee engagement initiatives and engagement surveys.
  • HR practices that can increase engagement.
  • Communications opportunities and methods for engaging employees.
  • Global issues related to employee engagement.




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 ( and Employee Engagement: The Newest Research and Trends (



Business Case

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 ( and Workplaces That Enhance Performance and the Human Experience (



What Employee Engagement Isand Is Not

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:

  • Is loyal and productive (Gallup).
  • Knows what to do and wants to do it (Sibson Consulting).
  • Has a rational, emotional and motivational connection with the company (Employee Engagement Network).
  • Has the motivation to help the organization succeed (i.e., commitment) and a line of sight (i.e., focus and direction) to know what to do to make the organization successful (Watson Wyatt).
  • Is emotionally and intellectually committed to the organization or group, as measured by three primary behaviors:

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:

  • Gallup distinguishes between employees who are “actively engaged” (loyal and productive), “not engaged” (average performers) and “actively disengaged” (ROAD warriors, or “retired on active duty”).
  • Sibson Consulting differentiates “engaged” employees (those who know what to do and want to do it) from “disengaged” employees (those who don’t know what to do and don’t want to do it), “enthusiasts” (those who want to do the work but don’t know how to do it) and “renegades” (those who know what to do but do not want to do it).
  • The market research firm Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) applied a consumer market segmentation approach using the “say, stay and strive” model to measure engagement. This segmentation analysis revealed six distinct categories of employees that ORC identified as:
    • “Elizabeth the Engaged” (employees that have a lot of confidence in their leadership team and feel a great sense of accomplishment).
    • “Lucy the Laggard” (the most disengaged employees, who don’t plan to leave but tend to do their work half-heartedly and make careless mistakes).
    • “Colin the Comfy” (employees who have no intention of leaving their work environment but get little sense of accomplishment from their work, don’t feel valued, yet rarely complain).
    • “Alison the Ambivalent” (employees who lack a connection with the job or the organization).
    • “Simon the Saboteur” (employees who tend to be very negative and say critical things about the organization).
    • “Peter the Promiscuous” (employees who are positive, proud of their organization, put in effort, yet may leave because they tend to be motivated by money or personal development and lack an emotional connection with the organization).

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.).




What Drives Employee Engagement?

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.



Organizational 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:

  • Ensures that senior leaders set the direction.
  • Focuses employees at all levels on the customer.
  • Compensates people based on performance and customer focus.
  • Communicates corporate strategy and goals, the importance of the customer and the value of the total rewards package clearly.

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:

  • Set a clear, compelling direction that empowers each employee.
  • Engage in open and honest communication.
  • Maintain a focus on career growth and development.
  • Recognize and reward high performance.
  • Provide employee benefits that demonstrate a strong commitment to employee well-being.


Management drivers

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:

  • The Gallup “Q12,” which are 12 core elements that link strongly to key business outcomes. These elements relate to what the employee gets (e.g., clear expectations, resources), what the employee gives (e.g., the employee’s individual contributions), whether the individual fits in the organization (e.g., based on the company mission and co-workers) and whether the employee has the opportunity to grow (e.g., by getting feedback about work and opportunities to learn).
  • Employees enjoy a good relationship with their supervisor.
  • Employees have the necessary equipment to do the job well.
  • Employees have authority necessary to accomplish their job well.
  • Employees have freedom to make work decisions.


Employee Engagement: Your Competitive Advantage ( and SHRM 2016 Job Satisfaction and Engagement Survey




The Roles of HR and Management

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. (

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:

  • Make sure that managers and employees have the tools to do their jobs correctly.
  • Periodically assign managers larger, more exciting roles.
  • Give managers appropriate authority.
  • Accelerate leadership development efforts.
  • Ask managers to convey the corporate mission and vision and to help transform the organization.



How to Develop and Sustain Employee Engagement

To increase employee engagement levels, employers should give careful thought to the design of engagement initiatives.


General guidelines

As HR professionals consider adopting or modifying practices or initiatives to increase employee engagement, they should:

  • Make sound investments. The organization should consider the strategic implications of various HR practices and determine which are more important and merit greater investment to enhance engagement levels.
  • Develop a compelling business case. HR professionals should be able to demonstrate how these investments have led to positive, measurable business outcomes for the organization or other businesses.
  • Consider unintended consequences. When evaluating alternatives for redesigning HR practices to foster employee engagement, think about the likely impact of the revised policies. Are there potentially unintended, unfavorable consequences that may occur based on the impact of that change on employees in different circumstances and life situations?
  • Base investment decisions on sound data. Employee engagement should be measured annually. Survey items should be linked to the organization’s key performance measures, such as profitability, productivity, quality, customer satisfaction and customer loyalty. Outcomes of employee engagement research should include the identification of the highest-impact engagement levers and survey items that differentiate top-performing business units from less successful units.
  • Create an engagement culture.” This can be done by communicating the value of engagement in the mission statement and executive communications, ensuring that business units implement their engagement action plans, monitoring progress, adjusting strategies and plans as needed, and recognizing and celebrating progress and results.


HR practices

HR practices have a significant impact on employee engagement. The following practices can increase employee engagement:

  • Job enrichment. Incorporate meaning, variety, autonomy and co-worker respect into jobs and tasks so that employees view their role more broadly and become more willing to take on duties beyond their job description.
  • Recruiting. Target applicants who are likely to view their work as interesting and challenging. Encourage those who are not suited for particular work to opt out of the process.
  • Selection. Choose candidates who are most likely to perform job duties well, make voluntary contributions and avoid improper conduct.
  • Training and development. Provide orientation to create understanding about how the job contributes to the organization. Offer skill development training to increase job performance, satisfaction and self-efficacy.
  • Strategic compensation. Use pay-for-performance programs to focus employees’ attention on incentivized behaviors. Adopt competency-based pay to encourage acquisition of knowledge and skills and enhance employee performance.
  • Performance management. Provide challenging goals that align with the organization’s strategic objectives, feedback, recognition for accomplishments and extra voluntary contributions. See ANSI/SHRM Performance Management Standard (




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.


Communication opportunities

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:

  • Recruitment; onboarding.
  • Performance reviews.
  • Goal-setting.
  • Training.
  • Communications by senior leaders.
  • Employee surveys.

Informal opportunities include:

  • Coaching.
  • Mentoring.
  • Career development discussions.
  • Ongoing performance feedback.
  • Recognition programs.
  • Company social events.
  • Personal crises.


Communication methods

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:

  • Keeping in touch.” Ongoing communications with work groups can occur through regular meetings, ideally with 10-15 employees in each meeting, according to a weekly or bi-weekly schedule. In this forum, issues can be aired or ideas can be discussed to gain immediate feedback. Another component of keeping in touch is one-on-one meetings with an employee who is targeted for superior performance, identified for performance improvement or randomly chosen from the work group.
  • Remote communication. With the increase of telecommuting and remote workers, different technologies allow managers and HR professionals to maintain contact, including:
    • Employee listening platforms where HR can survey workers, gather comments and suggestions, conduct exit interviews, etc.
    • Social media and mobile app resources to discuss issues, share ideas, conduct surveys and vote on issues.
    • Blogs that routinely inform and update employees on new initiatives and allow employee responses to be recorded and openly available.
    • Video and teleconferencing.
    • E-mailed newsletters.




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 (


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:

  • Include questions that could be asked every year or more frequently. This will provide a baseline for management of employee engagement.
  • Keep language neutral or positive. For example, ask, “Is our line-to-staff ratio correct for a company our size?” instead of “Are there too many staff for a company our size?” Avoid negatively worded items.
  • Focus on behaviors. Good questions probe supervisors’ and employees’ everyday behaviors and relate those behaviors to customer service whenever possible.
  • Beware of loaded and uninformative questions. For example, questions such as “Do you look forward to going to work on Mondays?” elicit a “no” response easily, even from engaged workers.
  • Keep the survey length reasonable. Overly long surveys reduce participation rates and may result in skewed responses because participants check answers just to finish the survey as quickly as possible. If you work with a vendor that comes to you with a “standard” list of questions, consider tailoring questions to reflect particular organizational needs.
  • Consider what you’re saying about the organization’s values in issuing the questionnaire. Question selection is critical because it tells employees what the organization cares enough to ask about.
  • Ask for a few written comments. Some organizations include open-ended questions, where employees can write comments at the end of surveys to identify themes they might not have covered in the survey and might want to address in the future.
  • Consider doing more than one type of survey, each with different questions, frequencies and audiences. For example “pulse” surveys are brief, more frequent surveys that address specific issues or are given to specific segments of the workforce, and they can take place between annual surveys. Or conduct different surveys for company leaders and employees, or in different business units or specific countries.


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:

  • Have management communicate to employees that the survey is an organizational, not a public relations, initiative.
  • Consider creating a survey committee to instill broad buy-in.
  • Create feedback or focus groups to determine the level of significance of specific items mentioned in the survey.
  • Involve the entire management team in the action-planning process to ensure that changes are made based on employee feedback.
  • Group open-ended survey comments by theme and categorize them at the work group level to ensure confidentiality of survey feedback.



Global Issues

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:

  • View global HR decisions in the context of national culture.
  • Use valid research—not stereotypes—to align HR practices for a local population with actual employee attitudes and perceptions.
  • Remember that the norm for engagement varies widely from country to country, making it critical to have data on national norms to interpret employee surveys correctly.
  • Realize that the elements that create engagement also create the employment brand.
  • Understand that how the organization conducts its work reflects its organizational culture.



Adkins, A. (2016, Jan. 13). Employee engagement in the U.S. stagnant in 2015. Retrieved from

2Hastings, R. (2009, March 4). The “what” and “why” of employee engagement. Retrieved from


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