CIPD Voice: Issue 28
Although it has been an established topic since the 1990s, employee engagement has fast become firmly embedded as a core area of HR and of organisational practice. It’s also increasingly making its way into boardroom papers and leadership conversations. Despite this, the research on employee engagement is still underdeveloped. Our recent evidence review takes a deep dive into what it is (and is not), how to measure it, and what claims we can make about how it increases productivity.
While HR concepts like recruitment, diversity, health and safety are generally concrete in what we mean and what we measure, employee engagement suffers from being both popular and hard to define. Of the companies in the FTSE 100, 10% include an employee engagement in their bonus metrics, which might seem like a small proportion, but it is second only to health and safety and higher than diversity and inclusion. At the same time, there is no one single definition of what we mean by employee engagement. The term is used interchangeably with other connected concepts like happiness, loyalty, focus and commitment to work, commitment to the organisation, individual purpose, and job satisfaction. The biggest problem however is the tendency to add other concepts together, to make one single employee engagement score.
What is employee engagement?
In academic research, employee engagement is usually a psychological state - a state of being that an individual is (or isn’t) in. Definitions vary, but the most common is work engagement -an employees’ ‘vigour’ towards their work, dedication to their work, and absorption in their work. This concept is very well researched and evidenced. It is also the most reliable aspect of engagement we can measure. In practice-based approaches though, employee engagement doesn’t have a single definition, and it can mean a psychological state, or refer to a composite of metrics. This usually includes work engagement alongside factors that we know affect engagement, and sometimes includes different but related concepts like workplace culture and job satisfaction. The most well-known example of this is the Gallup Q12, which includes interconnected concepts under one single measure. The problem with this, as one academic commentator sums up, is “attaching a name to a collection of survey items does not make it a construct”.
Umbrella concepts aren’t inherently bad; we see the same with concepts like culture or inclusion. The problem lies in the tendency to want one single metric number that we can track over time. When we take a broad measure of several concepts and add them up to make one measure, you don’t have any way to identify what is impacting what. This is particularly an issue with employee engagement when we know that so many of the interrelated topics, including motivation, satisfaction, wellbeing, and commitment to work, directly affect each other. You can effectively end up measuring both cause and effect under one metric.
Dr Scarlett Brown, Consultant, Policy team
Dr Scarlett Brown is a consultant in the policy team at the CIPD, working on the CIPD’s responsible leadership and corporate governance agenda. She is passionate about helping organisations and leaders have better, evidence-based practice. She is also a research and policy associate at Board Intelligence, where she leads their Think Tank, and co-founder of Dynamic Boards, a non-executive director recruitment platform. Her book Gender and corporate boards was published last year, based on her PhD research into board diversity. She was previously director of research at Tomorrow’s Company, and a senior governance analyst at Grant Thornton.