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The employee engagement gap: From debate to action

The difference between engagement with a job and engagement with an organisation, and what HR should do to improve both


There remains high interest in how best to tackle the so-called ‘employee engagement gap’. However, it appears that academics and practitioners might be talking about different things under the broad umbrella title of ‘engagement’. So it is hardly surprising that the two camps have differing perspectives about the best way to solve the problem. There’s lots of research that makes the connection between an engaged workforce and organisational performance. But the evidence base uses many different definitions and measures of engagement, indicating that the very concept is unclear. This article explains the difference between engagement with the job and with the organisation.

What’s new

If you work in HR you cannot escape the topic of employee engagement. Yet defining what the term actually means remains a contentious issue; many different definitions are used across academia and practice.

The original definition was developed back in the 1990s, with engagement seen as ‘the harnessing of organisation members... to their work roles’; where employees can ‘express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances’ (Kahn, 1990).

In particular Kahn suggested that employee engagement is a role-specific concept and the degree to which people are ‘psychologically present’ in their work can vary.

At work we take on many different roles – there’s your job role, your role as a team and organisational member, as well as potentially a managerial or leadership role. But when we think about engagement, and what that means in reality, many HR departments will talk about ‘organisational engagement’. That is: how an employee engages with their role as an organisational member. This is reflected in the questions that are asked in many popular engagement surveys, such as ‘I am proud to work for my company’.

However, in the academic world engagement is usually thought to be concerned with the job role, and surveys often ask employees to respond to statements such as ‘sometimes I am so into my job that I lose track of time’.

In 2006 Saks acknowledged both sides of the argument; highlighting the dual nature of engagement as potentially covering both job and organisational engagement. Saks’ research suggested that employees can engage with both their job role and their role as a member of an organisation, and these different levels of engagement have unique drivers and outcomes.

For businesses this could be a key distinction to make: could it be possible for someone to be highly engaged with the organisation but have low levels of job engagement or vice versa? Could different HR practices influence different types of engagement? If job and organisational engagement lead to different outcomes, should organisations first identify where the problem is and work backwards?

The evidence base supports ‘job engagement’ – and its association with beneficial outcomes for individuals and organisations – more strongly than organisational engagement’. This means that further research is required to convince some academics about the very existence, let alone utility, of organisational engagement.

Key findings

Several meta-analyses have demonstrated the relationship between job engagement and a range of positive business-level outcomes. There is evidence that organisations where employees are highly engaged with their job have higher levels of productivity, profitability and customer satisfaction, and lower employee turnover (Harter, Schmidt, and Hayes, 2002; Harter, Schmidt, Agrawal, Plowman and Blue, 2016). At an individual level engaged employees tended to show enhanced job satisfaction, improved job performance and reduced levels of intention to quit (Saks, 2006; Yalabik, Popaitoon, Chowne and Rayton, 2013; Rich, Lepine, and Crawford, 2010; Xanthopoulou, Bakker, Demerouti and Schaufeli, 2007).

The focus on organisational engagement has come about relatively recently, and so there has been less research exploring the outcomes associated with it. There is some evidence, however, that employees engaged in their organisation are more likely to ‘go the extra mile’ and engage in positive behaviours outside of their job description (Campbell, Pickford and Joy, 2016).There is also tentative evidence suggesting that employees with higher levels of organisational engagement have less desire to leave an organisation (Malinen, Wright and Cammock, 2013; Saks, 2006).

Looking at the evidence it becomes clear why we are still interested in employee engagement, as it appears to offer businesses a competitive advantage. How it does this, however, is poorly understood. Some think that because a highly-engaged workforce is fundamentally difficult to copy (unlike, say, a product or pricing strategy) it gives a unique advantage. The downside of the non-replicable nature of engagement is that organisations often struggle to increase it. However, the emerging research can offer practical guidance.

From research to reality

So it seems that engagement is important for businesses; but where should you start if you want to improve it? HR practitioners should collect data from their own organisations to combine with the academic evidence base and their expertise. Collecting internal data often takes the form of an annual employee engagement survey. To gather quality data the process should be optimised to encourage participation and elicit honest and representative views.

Once you feel you have collected sufficient internal (and maybe external) views, the next step is to thoroughly analyse the data and understand what it is telling you, before combining it with evidence from external research.

Addressing the drivers of engagement

So you have collected your data and identified your problem areas (and your strengths). But what do you do now? Before getting carried away with the latest innovation you should consult the evidence base to see what ‘works’. There is a lack of clear and digestible guidance for businesses, however. To start tackling the problem Guest (2014) advocates adopting a multi-level approach, with a focus on the key drivers that have been shown to predict job and organisational engagement:

The elements of the job

There is a robust body of evidence demonstrating the positive impact of a well-designed and enriching job. When designing any job ideally it should provide: autonomy, a variety of tasks, opportunities to utilise the employee’s skills and challenge themselves, a sense of meaning, and opportunities for learning and feedback (both giving and receiving).

Processes and procedures

Are your processes and procedures fair? The sense of fairness and equity in an organisation is vital. When a process is thought to be unfair the employee’s reactions are typically directed at the whole organisation. Evaluate current processes to identify any unfair decision-making. When any genuinely unjust processes have been rectified the focus should turn to communication.

Remember the perception of unfairness is enough to damage engagement, even if the process/decision is actually fair. Therefore open and frequent communication is essential to ensure transparency of decision-making.

Support for employees

How supported your employees feel has a big impact. It is essential that the feeling of being supported permeates your culture and systems. There are a number of ways organisations can increase levels of perceived support, including fair operational and HR practices, reducing levels of organisational politics and supportive working conditions.

What your employees value

The more employees’ values align with an organisation’s values, the more willing they will be to fully engage (Rich et al, 2010). A number of steps can be taken to improve the alignment of values, but caution is important so as to not sacrifice diversity. Recruitment practices can be designed to identify individuals with similar values to the organisation, and induction and ongoing mentoring can be used as an opportunity to ‘socialise’ new hires.

Workplace relationships and employee voice

Workplace relationships can often be forgotten, especially with the rise of remote working and virtual communication. One of the most important workplace relationships is the one an individual has with their line manager. However, that is not to discount the impact of others such as peers, team members and the organisation itself (typically represented by interactions with the senior leadership team).

Developing workplace relationships is something that occurs over time – there is no quick fix. Line managers (and senior management) must understand that relationships are two way; there has to be both give and take. A trusting relationship creates a foundation essential for engagement, and open, clear and regular communications in a range of mediums are a great place to start. But don’t forget the value of face-to-face interactions.

Line managers

Institute for Employment Studies research highlights that time should be spent training and supporting managers to understand the vital part they play (Robinson and Hayday, 2009). Does engagement-focused activity form part of job descriptions, talent management or development progression? Organisations should embed engagement strategy throughout their HR processes, and provide ongoing support for managers to enact it.

Actions for employers and HR

Despite its smaller evidence base organisational engagement should not be abandoned altogether; businesses can adopt an integrated and multi-level approach to engagement that draws on drivers from both evidence bases. These drivers are certainly not a set of quick fixes and the influence of each will vary depending on the organisational context and personal factors. They can, however, be used to shape the components of an engagement strategy that is tuned to your context and workforce.

Megan Edwards is a research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies

This piece appeared in the April 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk