Employee engagement: emperor’s new clothes?


Last week, we held the latest in our series of ‘Evidence Matters’ breakfast seminars, in London. The focus was ’employee engagement’, an extremely popular topic in the HR world. We wanted to get under the skin of this concept, examine the claims made for its impact on people and organisations and start a debate. And thanks to delegates who attended, we had a very enjoyable and interactive session!

Our focus at the Future Work Centre is evidence-based practice and, while it’s a popular topic, we were determined to get past the hype and examine the evidence for the impact of employee engagement. We launched our white paper “Employee Engagement: The emperor’s new clothes?” at the event and you can download a copy here.

Wait. What’s wrong with ‘engagement’?

We argue that there are four central problems with engagement:

  1. There is no agreed definition of engagement. Looking at the photo below, you can see the variety of responses our delegates gave when asked ‘what do you mean by engagement?’. And they’re not alone. A lack of a shared understanding obviously leads to some additional problems, outlined below.

    Defining engagement

    Defining engagement

  2. Leading on from defining engagement, there is the problem of measurement. Employee engagement is primarily ensured using surveys, yet these surveys vary significantly in their contents and focus. If there isn’t agreement on what’s being measured and what’s included in the measurement itself, how can we make any claims about the topic we’re looking at?
  3. Engagement itself overlaps considerably with other concepts, such as employee satisfaction and motivation. In fact, some measures of engagement correlate with satisfaction to such an extent that they’re essentially measuring the same thing! It looks like engagement is really a combination of several existing concepts, not something new and different.
  4. Finally, our review of the literature on engagement illustrates there is very little quality evidence supporting the claims made about its impact on employee and organisational performance. Yes, there are plenty of case studies and ‘thought leadership’, but these do not represent good quality evidence.

So what’s the alternative?

We’re not suggesting that practitioners throw away their surveys and stop asking employees how they feel about work. We suggest you think about the following:

  • Instead of accepting the claims made by engagement advocates, consider the problem you’re trying to solve with an employee survey. If you can’t define the problem, maybe there isn’t one and maybe you don’t need a survey!
  • If you have a clearly-defined problem, and gathering more feedback from employees would help you understand it better, that should guide the design of your employee survey, not beliefs about what you should be measuring.
  • Find out what works in your organisation. Examine the impact employee opinions have on your key metrics – after all, that’s why they’re key. If you don’t find a relationship between satisfaction and productivity, look elsewhere. If you’re looking to increase productivity, that should be your starting point – not an assumption that increasing engagement (whatever that is) will increase productivity (it probably won’t!)
  • There are alternative and better-validated concepts you can measure in the workplace, if they’re relevant. These include employee satisfaction, commitment and motivation. And there are plenty of measures out there you can use to assess them. Don’t assume that because your survey mentions satisfaction that it measures it scientifically. But be warned, the evidence points to these factors having a weak association with either individual or organisational success.
  • Consider the value you’re getting from your employee survey. Are you analysing your data beyond simple descriptive statistics (e.g. 8 out of 10 people think it’s a great place to work). Does the time and effort expended on regular surveys give you any return at all? Be brave and consider changing your approach.

Find out more

You can find out more about this topic and how we can help you address it, by downloading our white paper or signing up for one of our future free events. Check out our events page for more information.