Posted by: Jonny Gifford

Tagged in: Corporate Strategy


‘The business case’ for employee engagement


Is the unending search for ‘the business case’ for employee engagement a futile exercise?

With the launch of the Engage for Success (E4S) website, it’s an apt time to reflect how far our thinking on ‘employee engagement’ has come. Certainly the term has been mainstreamed over recent years, in part due to the work led by David McLeod and Nita Clarke, an important and praiseworthy development. And yet, I do wonder how much people always ‘get it’.

Two reasons for my doubt. Firstly, many HR practitioners seem to equate employee engagement with staff surveys. And secondly, the continual drive to demonstrate and quantify the business benefits of employee engagement often takes centre stage.

At the E4S launch yesterday, Archie Norman, the chairman of ITV, described employee engagement as the ‘struggle’ against the management philosophy that placed productivity and the measurement of inputs and outputs above all else. Employees matter as individuals and they need to be met where they are, treated respectfully, communicated with openly, done ‘with’ not ‘to’. As the employee in the E4S video puts it, it’s about being treated as a human being, not a human ‘resource’.

Yet, if the first thing we say about employee engagement is that only x per cent of UK employees are ‘engaged’ and the cost of ‘disengagement’ runs into the millions, I fear we are in danger of reinforcing the very discourse that we are trying to replace. The percentages seem artificially precise and the strong emphasis on profit and loss feels self defeating.

Perhaps it’s good to remind ourselves what employee engagement is really about. First off, it is not a staff survey, or indeed anything that management ‘does’ to its workforce; it is a state of being within employees. Nor is it something that can be clearly delineated and accurately measured, so the percentages of employees who we are told are ‘engaged’ give it an aura of mystique.

The concept of employee engagement should feel real, not nebulous. I’ve heard people respond to requests for a definition of employee engagement with: “You know it when you see it”. Well, in the immortal words of Sir Humphrey Appleby, Yes ... And no.

For example, the other year I led some research on employee engagement at Roffey Park Institute. One thing we found was that employees focus on what they feel is worthwhile in their job more than business strategy and, as a result, can feel that their organisation’s focus on efficiency undermines service quality. This scenario produces employees who are highly engaged with and committed to their work but thoroughly hacked off and disengaged with their organisation.

The CIPD / Kingston Business School’s research on the Locus of engagement builds on this idea further, by showing that employees can be engaged with multiple aspects of their work, including their job role, profession, line manager, colleagues, customers, or the organisation. In short, employee engagement is not black-and-white, and far more nuanced than any yes/no indicator.

At the heart of employee engagement is the belief in a win-win employment relationship and the alignment of the employers’ and employees’ interests. Earlier concepts tended to focus on either the employee or the organisation. For the benefit of employees, we had the Quality of Working Life movement, industrial democracy and job satisfaction. For the benefit of organisations, we had organisational commitment and organisational citizenship behaviour. What makes employee engagement different is that it says we need to aim explicitly for both of these.

So on the one hand, it’s not enough for employees to be happy and enthusiastic, to want to go the extra mile. They need to be going the extra mile in the right direction. But equally, I’m convinced that if your focus is mainly on the ‘business benefit’ of employee engagement, your efforts to support it will ring hollow. You’ll be painting by numbers, faking it, and employees will pick up on this.

The organisations that are best at engaging their employees are the ones whose rationale for what they do  is: “This is just how we do business”. It’s not a calculated tactic to increase profitability and certainly not, as Cederström and Fleming describe in their book Dead Man Working, a ruse to get employees to exploit themselves. It’s core to their philosophy of managing people respectfully, effectively and sustainably.

Indeed, I've always been suspicious of the reliance on a profit-related business case for progressive employment practices. The implication is that if there is no productivity benefit, which in the short term may be the case, it's fine to ignore them. A more reliable and ultimately stronger argument lies in saying this is the right and most sustainable way to do business. The slave trade did not end because of a convincing business case, but through moral persuasion.

As for what we mean by employee engagement, we would do well to remember that its principles are simple and grounded: the good of the employee and the good of the organisation, in tandem. If we are measuring engagement, let’s make sure that the way we talk about it reflects this. We should not create an aura of mystique about something that is at base a genuine, progressive way of doing business.

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