Recent Trends in Human Resource Management

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Employee Engagement: Doing It vs. Measuring

It seems today that employee engagement is in vogue. Everywhere I look I hear about balanced score cards that include a placeholder for employee engagement, and I learn about organizations making their living out of measuring engagement and trying to explain it to their clients. I like the idea, but I worry about it. I worry that this is what employees would call “another HR thing.” Let’s face it – we have lots of “HR things.” They are called fads. These are the bandwagons upon which we hop.


Perhaps it’s time to evaluate whether employee engagement is a fad or a new knowledge domain from which HR executives can help make their companies a better place to work. One key difference between an HR fad and a real intervention is who owns the new process. Therefore, in this article I would like to evaluate who owns employee engagement with the goal of deriving ways in which we can make employee engagement a useful process and not just one more fad. But before going further, I want to define employee engagement.

Defining Employee Engagement


I like to define engagement in terms of what people do at work. I use something called role theory to elaborate on that definition. Role theory reviews different roles that people engage in at work, and it explains reasons why people engage in certain roles and not in others. My colleagues and I have been able to use role theory to understand conditions under which employees are either engaged or disengaged and examine what happens under both conditions. In particular, we uncovered five work-related roles that exist in any company. These roles are:

1. Job holder role – employees come to work and do the job that is listed in their job description.

2. Team member role – employees go “above and beyond” to help members of their team work toward common goals.

3. Entrepreneur role – employees come up with new ideas and processes and try to get those ideas implemented.

4. Career role – employees do things to enhance their career in the organization; they learn, they adapt new skills, and more.

5. Organization member role – employees do things that promote and help the company even if it’s not part of their jobs or their team’s duties.


Employees are in a highly engaged state when they are doing the nonjob roles. In general, we find that most employees have a sense of fairness, and even if their employer treats them poorly, most will show up to work and do the job role. But having employees show up at work simply doing their jobs gets an employer nowhere in terms of long-term competitiveness. If all of your employees show up and only do their jobs, then you are not building organizational strength and long-term competitiveness through people because anyone can hire those same employees and duplicate what you are doing.


It’s the synergy that comes from people working together and gathering creative ideas that leads to long-term organization wealth creation. That synergy and “above and beyond” behavior is evidence of employee engagement.


The question that we must ask ourselves is: “what are we doing to engage employees?” I’ve seen some approaches that involve using magical survey questions (the super 15, 30, 100, or more questions) to investigate and understand what you have to do in order to transform your workforce from disengaged to engaged. This means the process of engagement is dictated by the specific questions that one chooses to measure engagement. This approach worries me because it seems that we are trying to MEASURE engagement without necessarily helping individual managers really AFFECT engagement in their day-to-daywork.

Ref: Theresa Welbourne

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