As Another Survey Makes Clear, It May Be Time to Rethink the Obsession Over Engagement


Is it finally time for businesses and organizations to quit worrying and fixating about employee engagement? 

It's a serious question, because for as long as I have been writing about talent management and workplace issues, engagement has been a topic that everyone seems to talk about yet no one has been able to really get their hands around.

This comes again because of a report released this week from the HR Tech firm Namely found that 63 percent of CFO's didn't feel that measuring employee engagement, satisfaction, or happiness was a priority in their organizations.

In addition, the research found that 46 percent of survey respondents said that their CFO’s priority on measuring employee engagement, satisfaction or happiness was slight or not at all, and 58 percent of them said their organization just did not have a strategy for measuring employee engagement.

The elusive ROI of employee engagement

The report on all this — titled Where Purpose Meets Performance, Can HR Tech Solve Culture? — by analyst George LaRoque, hit the engagement nail square on the head in a section titled Rethinking Employee Engagement. In it, he wrote:

It’s difficult to research, write about, or discuss culture without the topic of employee engagement entering the picture. Employee engagement ... has been positioned by some technology vendors, thought leaders, and analysts as the golden ticket to increased employee retention rates and better business performance. Its measurement has, on one hand, gained popularity among HR thought leaders and pundits, while on the other becoming a growing frustration with practitioners uncovered in our research. Surveying the workforce to find your company’s level of engagement can be a straightforward proposition. Understanding the contributing factors that drive engagement ratings, and then enabling and supporting managers to address them, is anything but a direct line. Tying employee engagement to any direct business outcome or ROI (return on investment) is even more elusive."

This analysis is spot on, and it clearly cuts to the heart of the employee engagement problem: Although a great many intelligent people have pointed to it as the key to keeping employees happy and getting better work out of them as well, tying it to actual bottom line performance has been hard to do.

No wonder CFOs don't feel that measuring it is a priority for them. 

Meaningful work vs. higher pay

George LaRoque's analysis underlined this point as well:

We’ve grown to understand that a company’s culture, the core beliefs and purpose shared by the entire organization, are the special ingredient to drive their success. ...Employee engagement is not an outcome. At most, it is one of several important contributors to corporate culture, along with the components of talent management and the overall employee experience." 

There were some other interesting findings from the research, and they include: 

  • That 53 percent of respondents said that they would choose meaningful work with less pay over less meaningful work with higher pay. In some age groups as many as 63 percent selected the same.
  • Furthermore, 55 percent of respondents said that meaningful work with a purpose is the factor that most impacts their feeling of engagement in their work. They chose this over competitive pay (47 percent), benefits (35 percent), and a clear career path (25 percent).
  • Surprisingly, acknowledgment of a job well done rated the lowest in the survey, with slightly under 1 percent of respondents stating that it was a major impact in their feeling of engagement at work.

Has engagement finally run its course?

My take: This survey is just the latest indicator that the over-the-top, years-long obsession with employee engagement may have finally run its course. 

I thought George LaRoque was being incredibly kind when he wrote in his survey analysis that, "Tying employee engagement to any direct business outcome or ROI is ... elusive." And, his argument that engagement is simply one component of corporate or workplace culture is a good one.

But, with so many businesses still touting their ability to help organizations build and measure engagement, don't expect the buzz around it to go away anytime soon. I suspect they won't go away very easily, and that we'll still be hearing from them for quite a few years to come.  

The survey for the report Where Purpose Meets Performance, Can HR Tech Solve Culturewas conducted by#HRWINS for the HR technology firm Namely. To understand the employers’ perspective on culture and engagement, more than 600 employers were surveyed online, and dozens were interviewed, specifically those with less than 5,000 employees in North America. In addition, 400 consumers were surveyed online for the employee questions, and respondents were a minimum age of 25.