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Many books on management cite the apocryphal story about an engaged janitor at NASA who when asked by Kennedy what he was doing, replied "I'm helping to put a man on the Moon".

Employee engagement is a fundamental concept in the effort to understand and describe, both qualitatively and quantitatively, the nature of the relationship between an organization and its employees. An "engaged employee" is defined as one who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and so takes positive action to further the organization's reputation and interests. An engaged employee has a positive attitude towards the organization and its values.[1] In contrast, a disengaged employee may range from someone doing the bare minimum at work (aka 'coasting'), up to an employee who is actively damaging the company's work output and reputation.[2]

An organization with "high" employee engagement might therefore be expected to outperform those with "low" employee engagement.

Employee engagement first appeared as a concept in management theory in the 1990s,[3] becoming widespread in management practice in the 2000s, but it remains contested. Despite academic critiques, employee engagement practices are well established in the management of human resources and of internal communications.

Employee engagement today has become synonymous with terms like 'employee experience' and 'employee satisfaction', although satisfaction is a different concept. Whereas engagement refers to work motivation, satisfaction is an employee's attitude about the job--whether they like it or not. The relevance is much more due to the vast majority of new generation professionals in the workforce who have a higher propensity to be 'distracted' and 'disengaged' at work. A recent survey by StaffConnect suggests that an overwhelming number of enterprise organizations today (74.24%) were planning to improve employee experience in 2018.[4]


William Kahn provided the first formal definition of personnel engagement as "the harnessing of organisation members' selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances."[3]

In 1993, Schmidt et al. proposed a bridge between the pre-existing concept of 'job satisfaction' and employee engagement with the definition: "an employee's involvement with, commitment to, and satisfaction with work. Employee engagement is a part of employee retention." This definition integrates the classic constructs of job satisfaction (Smith et al., 1969), and organizational commitment (Meyer & Allen, 1991).

Defining employee engagement remains problematic. In their review of the literature in 2011, Wollard and Shuck[5] identify four main sub-concepts within the term:

  1. "Needs satisfying" approach, in which engagement is the expression of one's preferred self in task behaviours.
  2. "Burnout antithesis" approach, in which energy, involvement, efficacy are presented as the opposites of established "burnout" constructs: exhaustion, cynicism and lack of accomplishment.
  3. Satisfaction-engagement approach, in which engagement is a more technical version of job satisfaction, evidenced by The Gallup Company's own Q12 engagement survey which gives an r=.91 correlation with one (job satisfaction) measure.[6]
  4. The multidimensional approach, in which a clear distinction is maintained between job and organisational engagement, usually with the primary focus on antecedents and consequents to role performance rather than organisational identification.

Definitions of engagement vary in the weight they give to the individual vs the organisation in creating engagement. Recent practice has situated the drivers of engagement across this spectrum, from within the psyche of the individual employee (for example, promising recruitment services that will filter out 'disengaged' job applicants [7]) to focusing mainly on the actions and investments the organisation makes to support engagement.[8]

These definitional issues are potentially severe for practitioners. With different (and often proprietary) definitions of the object being measured, statistics from different sources are not readily comparable. Engagement work remains open to the challenge that its basic assumptions are, as Tom Keenoy describes them, 'normative' and 'aspirational', rather than analytic or operational - and so risk being seen by other organizational participants as "motherhood and apple pie" rhetoric.[9]


Prior to Kahn's use of the term in the mid-1990s, a series of concepts relating to employee engagement had been investigated in management theory. Employee morale, work ethic, productivity, and motivation had been explored in a line dating back to the work of Mary Parker Follett in the early 1920s. Survey-based World War II studies on leadership and group morale sparked further confidence that such properties could be investigated and measured.[10] Later, Frederick Herzberg concluded[11] that positive motivation is driven by managers giving their employees developmental opportunities, activity he termed 'vertical enrichment'.


With the wide range of definitions comes a variety of potential contributors to desirable levels of employee engagement. Some examples:


Eileen Appelbaum and her colleagues (2000) studied 15 steel mills, 17 apparel manufacturers, and 10 electronic instrument and imaging equipment producers. Their purpose was to compare traditional production systems with flexible high-performance production systems involving teams, training, and incentive pay systems. In all three industries, the plants utilizing high-involvement practices showed superior performance. In addition, workers in the high-involvement plants showed more positive attitudes, including trust, organizational commitment and intrinsic enjoyment of the work.[12] The concept has gained popularity as various studies have demonstrated links with productivity. It is often linked to the notion of employee voice and empowerment.[13]

Two studies of employees in the life insurance industry examined the impact of employee perceptions that they had the power to make decisions, sufficient knowledge and information to do the job effectively, and rewards for high performance. Both studies included large samples of employees (3,570 employees in 49 organizations and 4,828 employees in 92 organizations). In both studies, high-involvement management practices were positively associated with employee morale, employee retention, and firm financial performance.[12] Watson Wyatt found that high-commitment organizations (one with loyal and dedicated employees) out-performed those with low commitment by 47% in the 2000 study and by 200% in the 2002 study.[14]


Employees with the highest level of commitment perform 20% better and are 87% less likely to leave the organization, which indicates that engagement is linked to employee satisfaction and organizational performance.[15] When employers are more empathetic, productivity will naturally increase. 85% of US employees believe that their employers are not empathetic.[16]


In a study of professional service firms, the Hay Group found that offices with engaged employees were up to 43% more productive.[17] Job satisfaction is also linked to productivity.[18]

Person factors and individual differences

Frequently overlooked are employees' unique personalities, needs, motives, interests and goals, which interact with organizational factors and interventions to influence engagement levels. On the other hand, some employees will always be more (or less) engaged and motivated than others, as the recently operationalized construct of drive implies.[19]

Elements of Engagement

According to Stein, et al,[20] there are four elements that determine employee engagement, and they include the following:

1) Commitment to the organization- Are the employees "bought in" to the organization's mission and do they see a future at the company

2) Identifies with the organization- Does the employee's beliefs, values, and goals align with their role and where they want to go in the future.

3) Feels satisfied with their job- Is the employee feeling accomplished at the end of the day and are proud of what they do.

4) Feels energized at work- They want to show up to the job and they are motivated to work all day and not counting down the hours until the end of the day

Generating engagement

Increasing engagement is a primary objective of organizations seeking to understand and measure engagement. Gallup defines employee engagement as being highly involved in and enthusiastic about one's work and workplace; engaged workers are psychological owners, drive high performance and innovation, and move the organization forward. Gallup's global measure of employee engagement finds that just 21% of workers are engaged.[21]

Drivers of engagement

Some additional points from research into drivers of engagement are presented below:

Commitment theories are rather based on creating conditions, under which the employee will feel compelled to work for an organization, whereas engagement theories aim to bring about a situation in which the employee by free choice has an intrinsic desire to work in the best interests of the organization.[26]

Recent research has focused on developing a better understanding of how variables such as quality of work relationships and values of the organization interact, and their link to important work outcomes.[27] From the perspective of the employee, "outcomes" range from strong commitment to the isolation of oneself from the organization.[25]

Employee engagement can be measured through employee pulse surveys, detailed employee satisfaction surveys, direct feedback, group discussions and even exit interviews of employees leaving the organization.[28]

Employee engagement mediates the relationship between the perceived learning climate and these extra-role behaviors.[29]

Types of Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is a multifaceted concept that extends across various stages of the employee lifecycle.[30] From the initial interaction with potential candidates to the feedback gathered during exit interviews, organizations employ different strategies to foster a positive and productive work environment. Let's explore four key types of employee engagement: Candidate Engagement, New Hire Engagement, Employee Satisfaction Surveys, and Exit Interviews, each playing a distinct role in shaping the employee experience and contributing to overall organizational success.

  1. Candidate Engagement:
    • Definition: Candidate engagement refers to the process of building a positive relationship between a potential employee and an organization, starting from the initial interaction through the entire recruitment process.
    • Key Elements: This involves effective communication, timely feedback, and providing a transparent view of the company culture and values to attract top talent.
    • Importance: Positive candidate engagement not only enhances the employer brand but also ensures a smooth transition for candidates from being prospects to potential employees.
  2. New Hire Engagement:
    • Definition: New hire engagement focuses on integrating and acclimating employees into the organization during the early stages of their employment.
    • Key Elements: Onboarding programs, mentorship, clear job expectations, and opportunities for social integration are vital components of new hire engagement.
    • Importance: Engaging new hires from the start promotes a sense of belonging, reduces turnover, and accelerates the time it takes for employees to become productive contributors.
  3. Employee Satisfaction Survey:
    • Definition: Employee satisfaction surveys are systematic tools used by organizations to gather feedback from employees about their experiences, perceptions, and satisfaction levels.
    • Key Elements: Surveys typically cover aspects such as work environment, leadership, compensation, and professional development opportunities.
    • Importance: Conducting regular satisfaction surveys helps organizations identify areas of improvement, gauge employee morale, and make informed decisions to enhance overall workplace satisfaction.
  4. Exit Interview:
    • Definition: An exit interview is a structured conversation conducted when an employee is leaving the organization, aimed at understanding the reasons for their departure and gathering valuable feedback.
    • Key Elements: Honest and open communication is crucial, exploring aspects like job satisfaction, workplace culture, and opportunities for improvement.
    • Importance: Exit interviews provide insights into potential issues within the organization, help in identifying trends, and offer an opportunity to make necessary adjustments to retain talent in the future.

These types of employee engagement collectively contribute to creating a positive work environment, fostering employee satisfaction, and ultimately, enhancing organizational success.

Family engagement strategy

In an increasingly convergent and globalized world, managers need to foster unique strategies that keep employees engaged, motivated and dedicated to their work. Work–life balance at the individual level has been found to predict a highly engaged and productive workforce.[31] An important aspect of work–life balance is how well the individual feels they can balance both family and work. The family is a cultural force that differs from its values, structures and roles across the globe. However, the family can be a useful tool for global managers to foster engagement among its team. Parental support policy is being adopted among businesses around the globe as a strategy to create a sustainable and effective workforce.[32] Research suggests businesses that provide paid parental support policy realized a 70% increase in workers productivity.[33] Moreover, firms that provided paid parental leave gained a 91% increase in profits, by providing parents with resources to balance both work and personal life.[34] These findings are supported by social exchange theory, which suggests that workers feel obliged to return the favour to employers in the way of hard work and dedication when compensated with additional benefits like parental support.[32]

When using parental support as a strategy to enhance global workforce engagement, managers must consider a work-life fit [31] model, that accounts for the different cultural needs of the family. Global leaders must understand that no one culture is the same and should consider an adaptive and flexible policy to adhere to the needs of the individual level. Companies may have diverse representation among its workforce that may not align with the policy offered in the external political environment. In addition, as companies expand across the globe, it is important to avoid creating a universal policy that may not adhere to the cultural conditions aboard. In a study conducted by Faiza et al. (2017), centrality and influence were two concepts used to help inform employers about the individual cultural needs of employees.[35] Centrality referred to the organization understanding the social and environmental domain in which it was operating in. This is useful because managers need to understand the external factors that could influence the cultural needs and/or tensions experienced by the employees. Next, it was important for organization to allow employees to influence policy so that the organization could adapt policies to meet employee's needs. Using these two factors with a work-life fit lens, organizations can create more a productive and dedicated workforce across the globe.


Industry discussion, debates and dialogues

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Employee engagement has opened for industry debate, with questions such as:

Volunteer engagement

Engagement has also been applied in relation to volunteers, for example more engaged Scout volunteers are likely to have increased satisfaction towards management. Work engagement relates to the positive internal mental state of a volunteer toward required tasks.[40]

References in popular culture

See also


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Further reading