Revisiting Employee Engagement

If anyone thinks the term ‘employee engagement’ is a fad and could soon become extinct, its nothing but wishful thinking. The term has dominated discussions and research in the HR world in recent times. Reason for harping on employee engagement is the need to get the best from employees which ultimately contributes to organisational growth. Organisations are faced with the challenges of retaining their best staff and promoting good work ethics amongst their workforce. It can be argued that part of the solution to this recurring dilemma is to engage your employees. This article revisits ways and benefits of engaging talent; invoking good attitudes and behaviour that are desirable in an organisational setting; and a critical analysis of employee engagement.

An attempt to define the term often leaves one frustrated because of its ambiguity. Employee engagement could mean satisfying your employees so that they can happily carry out their job functions. To some, it is simply getting the commitment of their workers while others see employees as engaged when they perform tasks well beyond what is required. As distinct as these three interpretations may appear, three elements can be deduced from them. Employee engagement has an organisational purpose by eliciting good attitude and behaviour from employees. These elements are explained further by the CIPD in its definition of engagement:

“A combination of commitment to the organisation and its values plus a willingness to help out colleagues. It goes beyond job satisfaction and is not simply motivation. Engagement is something the employee has to offer; it cannot be ‘required’ as part of the employment contract” (CIPD, 2009).

It is important we identify the kind of commitment required in the above definition. The concept of commitment here connotes loyalty and emotional attachment. It means employees giving their all for the organisation; believing in its values and going extra length. A scenario where an employee stays to help an organisation out of the woods by ignoring job offers from well performing competitors is a semblance of affective commitment. There are employees who will also promote their companies at any given opportunity; these people ‘breathe’ their organisation and could be said to be emotionally attached with their workplace.

There is however a thin line of distinction between engagement and organisational commitment. Beardwell and Claydon (2010) describe commitment as being developed through daily work activities while engagement is sustained through interaction amongst colleagues and managers. In simple terms, engaged employees are fully committed to the organisation but not every committed employee is fully engaged. Take a look at an employee who chooses to remain in an organisation for a long period, say ten years, for the simple reason of being paid huge pay-off benefits and not for believing in what the organisation represents or its values. This individual is said to be committed but not engaged to the organisation.

It is necessary to stress that behaviours which accentuate employee engagement are voluntary and are not within the remit of job roles.  Some of these behaviours include helping out colleagues when they are struggling with their work; willingly scanning the environment to identify threats and opportunities to the organisation; employees to voluntarily take up self-development activities; display absolute loyalty during good and bad times, being ready to promote the organisation at every given opportunity and superlatively carrying out duties beyond expected level.

For employees to show this desirable behaviour, something needs to give in from the side of the management. Organisations need to look out for their employees by paying them fairly; issues like health and safety are given prominence; well laid out HR policies on equal opportunities and commitment to appraisals; a two-way communication mechanism needs to be instituted where employees can voice out their grievances and offer suggestions; provision of conducive working environment and a commitment to employees career development.

With these prescriptions in place, one could make a case for employee engagement in the workplace. Employees won’t be keen on leaving which lays the foundation for talent development. It allows for employee development making the availability of capable hands to fill up job positions. As laudable as employee engagement is, some practitioners see it as mere rhetoric. They argue that its benefits are too descriptive while its proponents have failed to critically analyse these benefits.

As the debate rages on, it will be of academic and practical importance to shed some lights. While it is desirable for employees to go the extra length for their employers and the employers looking out for their employees, it remained to be seen how this relationship directly improves the bottom-line. This provokes the question of measuring employee engagement. How can it be quantified? If something really increases productivity, there should be a test of measure.

An interpretivist will however argue to the contrary. It is a natural disposition to go all out for someone who does the same for you. There is no gainsaying that this kind of relationship will flourish and blossom. This can also be argued for the work setting; employees will go the extra mile if employers treat them fairly. In today’s economic squeeze, employees could devise ways of cost cutting by pruning down on wastages. They could also put a call through to a potential client that will improve sales. There are lots of so many ways organisations can benefit by engaging their employees.

In trying to convince sceptics, more research is needed on employee engagement. Empirical cases need to be presented where engagement has brought about increased productivity. Academics and practitioners alike need to collaborate and do more on employee engagement.

 Bashir Mudi Baba can be reached on Twitter handle @El_De_Bash          

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