For decades, employ­ee engage­ment has been the gold stan­dard in mea­sur­ing the way employ­ees inter­act with the busi­ness.  In today’s world, espe­cial­ly where the coro­n­avirus is con­cerned, it’s not just about the inter­ac­tion but also the lev­el of com­mit­ment to the com­pa­ny.  While all human resources pro­fes­sion­als would like to believe their employ­ees are com­mit­ted to their orga­ni­za­tion, the sta­tis­tics sim­ply don’t paint that type of picture.

Over the last two decades, Gallup reports the per­cent­age of employ­ees dis­en­gaged at work has aver­aged 70 per­cent.1  And it’s been cost­ly.  Dis­en­gaged employ­ees have 18 per­cent low­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty with prof­itabil­i­ty being 15 per­cent low­er.2  When put into dol­lars and cents – “an active­ly dis­en­gaged employ­ee costs their orga­ni­za­tion $3,400 for every $10,000 of salary, or 34 per­cent. That means an active­ly dis­en­gaged employ­ee who makes $60,000 a year costs their com­pa­ny $20,400 a year!”3

So, what’s the answer to increas­ing engage­ment across the enter­prise and, in doing so, increas­ing pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and profits?

Disengagement and Engagement

The Causes

Defin­ing what employ­ee engage­ment is, in real­i­ty, is crit­i­cal to under­stand­ing its ben­e­fits and its chal­lenges.  Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, every HR pro­fes­sion­al has a dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion but all include the basic com­po­nent that an engaged employ­ee is one who com­mits to the orga­ni­za­tion and gives of him or her­self freely to the suc­cess of the company.


But what caus­es employ­ee engage­ment?  Let’s take a psy­cho­log­i­cal approach.

The term was first coined by psy­chol­o­gist William Kahn in a 1990 study titled Psy­cho­log­i­cal Con­di­tions of Per­son­al Engage­ment and Dis­en­gage­ment at Work.4  In the piece, Khan stud­ied two dif­fer­ent work­places:  a very struc­tured and for­mal archi­tec­ture firm and a casu­al sum­mer camp.  From his obser­va­tions, he defined engage­ment as “the har­ness­ing of orga­ni­za­tion mem­bers’ selves to their work roles; in engage­ment, peo­ple employ and express them­selves phys­i­cal­ly, cog­ni­tive­ly, and emo­tion­al­ly dur­ing role performances”.

Addi­tion­al­ly, Kahn out­lined three psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions that allow engage­ment to exist:

  1. Mean­ing­ful­ness – Is the work mean­ing­ful enough to the employ­ee that he/she engages with their full-self?
  2. Safe­ty – Is the work envi­ron­ment such that a per­son can bring their full-self with­out fear of criticism?
  3. Avail­abil­i­ty – Is the employ­ee men­tal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly able to express their full-self in the work environment?

Kahn fur­ther stat­ed those indi­vid­u­als who are ful­ly engaged with the orga­ni­za­tion will take own­er­ship of their work and will be loy­al to the orga­ni­za­tion.  Addi­tion­al­ly, he said engage­ment isn’t a con­stant.  Any num­ber of expe­ri­ences can cause engage­ment to change.

Of course, Kahn’s orig­i­nal def­i­n­i­tion has changed some­what over the three decades since it was first coined.  As pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned, engage­ment has become more about the employee’s will­ing­ness to go “above and beyond”5 to ben­e­fit the organization.

“Peo­ple are want­i­ng to feel that invest­ment from their orga­ni­za­tion and that does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean it has to be a mas­sive thing, but they want it to feel like it’s a two-way street,” Christo­pher Lind said.  He’s the Head of Glob­al Dig­i­tal Learn­ing for GE Health­care.  “It’s not so much a ‘you’re here to serve the employ­er’ thing.  Peo­ple are look­ing for that part­ner­ship. ‘I’m here to serve you.  You’re here to serve me.  And how are we meet­ing in the middle?”


Under­stand­ing how engage­ment works is only half the bat­tle.  For HR to move the nee­dle and make sig­nif­i­cant improve­ments, there needs to be an under­stand­ing of what can cause disengagement.

A key indi­ca­tor of dis­en­gage­ment is apa­thy.  Oth­er fac­tors occur when there is a lack of:

  • Auton­o­my
  • Com­mu­ni­ca­tion
  • Flex­i­bil­i­ty
  • Devel­op­ment
  • Trust
  • Per­son­al and/or Work­place Challenges

While it’s not an exhaus­tive list, it is a very real pos­si­bil­i­ty one or more of these can exist with­in an orga­ni­za­tion.  The chal­lenge lies in try­ing to fig­ure out how best to address each con­sis­tent­ly and constantly.

If we were to rank these fac­tors on a spec­trum of dif­fi­cul­ty where 10 is the most dif­fi­cult and one is the least dif­fi­cult, it might look some­thing like this:

As you notice, not a one of the fac­tors is eas­i­ly over­come.  Per­son­al and/or work­place chal­lenges are dif­fi­cult because some of those sit­u­a­tions are not inter­nal.  They are exter­nal and com­pa­nies are in a lim­it­ed posi­tion of pow­er when it comes to impact­ing those fac­tors.  Apa­thy isn’t far behind, but it is often a symp­tom of those per­ceived chal­lenges.  If a per­son is hav­ing an issue at home, it may present itself as a lack of inter­est or enthu­si­asm at work.

Now, that’s not to say human resources or lead­er­ship can’t offer some ways of deal­ing with these issues.  In some instances, a well­ness ben­e­fit can be of use i.e. coun­sel­ing of any type be it emo­tion or legal.

When it comes to auton­o­my, there is often a dis­con­nect about what this actu­al­ly entails.  It is not:

  • Work­ing in iso­la­tion with­out supervision.
  • Allow­ing employ­ees to do what­ev­er they like, but rather employ­ers cre­at­ing guide­lines that put bound­aries around employ­ee autonomy.
  • Work­ing with­out a net, but rather employ­ers pro­vid­ing a pic­ture of what suc­cess looks like and tips on how to achieve it.

It’s more about pro­vid­ing the means by which employ­ees have the lat­i­tude to make their own deci­sions and employ­ers pro­vide both the tools and the guide­lines to help employ­ees suc­ceed.  Suc­cess often leads to engagement.

Auton­o­my is often the result of trust.  Lead­ers who trust their employ­ees allow them to be more autonomous.  But trust goes both ways.  From a dis­en­gage­ment stand­point, the employ­ee who feels they are not trust­ed by lead­er­ship at any lev­el will be less like­ly to give of them­selves.  Trust with­in this con­text can also mean the employ­ee does not feel the com­pa­ny has his or her best inter­est at heart; that they are seen as noth­ing more than a num­ber rather than a person.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion ranked low­er than some might con­sid­er, but its dif­fi­cul­ty lies in the mes­sag­ing.  Any­one can send an email, make a phone call or share some­thing on social media.  It’s the con­text of the mes­sage; what are you as a com­pa­ny, as an HR pro­fes­sion­al try­ing to con­vey to the employ?  How is the employ­ee per­ceiv­ing that mes­sage and act­ing upon it as a result.

From the employ­ee per­spec­tive, it’s about com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the orga­ni­za­tion about any num­ber of things be it needs or desires.  Some­times that com­mu­ni­ca­tion is of a sen­si­tive nature.  How is that com­mu­ni­ca­tion han­dled?  If it is han­dled poor­ly, the employ­ee will dis­en­gage.  If it is prop­er­ly han­dled, the trans­la­tion is often an increase in engagement.

Flex­i­bil­i­ty presents unique chal­lenges as it is often relat­ed to sched­ul­ing and work­ing envi­ron­ment.  Can an employ­ee work dif­fer­ent hours to com­plete his or her job and func­tion at the same pro­duc­tiv­i­ty lev­els as oth­er mem­bers of the team?  Flex­i­bil­i­ty is also crit­i­cal in today’s envi­ron­ment espe­cial­ly when con­sid­er­ing work-life bal­ance.  Can a par­ent still get their child to soc­cer prac­tice on time and pro­vide great ser­vice to their employer?

Final­ly, we come to devel­op­ment.  Devel­op­ment is not easy.  Not by any means.  The chal­lenges often lay in meet­ing peo­ple where they are, but also what they desire.  There are also chal­lenges in mak­ing sure that learn­ing presents a return on investment.

Impact on the Business

Employ­ee engage­ment con­tin­ues to be one of the most impor­tant met­rics an orga­ni­za­tion can track.  It is, after all, not just a check box issue.  It requires con­stant and con­sis­tent atten­tion.  Oth­er­wise, human resources runs the risk of see­ing gaps in engage­ment lead­ing to an increase in disengagement.

Employ­ees aren’t sim­ply look­ing for a 9‑to‑5, Mon­day through Fri­day job.  They want to be involved, com­mit­ted and enthu­si­as­tic.  An orga­ni­za­tion that cre­ates the right envi­ron­ment can con­tin­u­ous­ly feed those employ­ee needs.  In return, the orga­ni­za­tion sees con­tin­ued growth and suc­cess with­in their industry.


by Mason Stevenson
Orig­i­nal­ly post­ed on HR Exchange Network