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Employee engagement is jargon

Employee engagement remains high on the agenda of organisations and according to an article in the Guardian on 22 August:

“large companies claim that they are doing more than ever before to listen to their staff and improve relationships. “Employee engagement” – the jargon for firms’ efforts to communicate and build good relations with their workforces – is a hot topic in management circles.”

It’s great to see that the “Engaging for Success” report completed for government in 2009 is making an impact, though co-author, Nita Clarke, also says that “It’s amazing how little attention the investment community pays to the fact that employee engagement has a real impact on medium- and long-term company performance.”

I’m currently researching internal communication and employee engagement measurement and what I’m finding is that the term “employee engagement” itself is problematic. Whether it is jargon or not is a moot point; it is certainly banded around a lot but means different things to different people.

Two schools of thought are emerging in the academic world. One is focused on work engagement, or immersion in work through “vigor, dedication and absorption”. This has led to the development of the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale by academics Schaufeli and Bakker.

Other academics, such as Macey and Schneider in the US point to wider, organisational identification factors. It is this approach that is more interesting to internal communicators as it is where our work can add most value to employee engagement. It is interesting to see that this is also closer to the common understanding of “communicating and building good relations” used in the Guardian article.

In the meantime, comparing levels of engagement is not very constructive. Firstly, the questions may differ according to the understanding of engagement or the consultancy used. Secondly, a figure of 80 per cent at one company (for example Molson Coors),  impressive as it is, cannot easily be compared with any other organisation as the situation will always be different, depending on the sector, the culture and the level of change the organisation is going through.

Macey and Scheider claim that most current attempts to measure engagement get the construct wrong, so perhaps it is time for a new approach?


  • August 27, 2010 9:35 pmPosted 7 years ago
    Doug Shaw

    I get fed up reading about folk trying to measure engagement. I think it’s interesting that the Guardian article says that BT’s approach “does show a willingness to be open about employee relations”. If you look into their results in more detail you find worrying numbers of people strongly disagree with the statement “I feel it is safe to speak up around here”. The scores are worse when looking at managing change.

    The article also talks about BT collecting data increasingly regularly. Anectodal evidence suggests the shift towards quarterly surveys results in survey fatigue, one survey is barely finished and woah – hear comes the next one. And it restricts strategic planning, often things get started and not finished. In my experience this is one of the most frequent reasons employees criticise their company for failing to manage well, you don’t finish what you start. Basically this kind of surveying often ends up with folk thinking employee engagement is simply about watching a series of measures.

    Surely there’s more productivity, more purpose in simply listening to people, asking good questions with them, and doing something with what you’ve heard? The resulting growth in your order book will tell you all you need to know about engagement, employee, customer, or otherwise.

    • August 30, 2010 8:55 pmPosted 7 years ago
      Kevin Ruck

      Hi Doug,

      I agree that survey overload is a problem and surveys should definitely not be used as a reason to delay planning and action. I like pulse surveys, if, and it is a big if, they are used to quickly inform plans and then to check progress against objectives.

      Of course, there is no point in measuring employee engagement just because the organisation has always done it. One of the points I make in the book is that if an annual survey is all an organisation does to engage employees then it is a very poor way of going about it.

      But there is a greater issue here and that is about what employee engagement actually is. Research condcuted by the CIPD in 2006 highlighted three primary drivers:

      1) having opportunities to feed your views upwards, 2) feeling well informed about what is happening in the organization, and 3) thinking that your manager is committed to your organization.

      If organisations all used a common set of questions based on solid academic research then some useful benchmarking could perhaps be done. But as you suggest, the data is only there as a check, what actually drives engagement is people communicating with each other, sharing important information and participating in strategic discussions about the organisation.


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    August 29, 2010 12:37 pmPosted 7 years ago
    Bob Gately

    An employee is either engaged or not engaged. Measuring the degree of engagement may help managers feel good but it does no good. Employee engagement requires that the person be an employee therefore it is the employer who must decide which employees are engaged. Employers should hire employees who are predisposed to become engaged. Employee engagement is the reward for all direct reports, supervisors, managers, and executives doing their jobs well. This helps explain why an engaged workforce is so hard to achieve; executives must do their jobs well and all other employees must do their jobs well. It is doable but it is hard work. To start we must learn how to hire people who are predisposed to become engaged.

    Bob Gately


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