Employee engagement & the emperor’s new clothes

RSA award winners

After a long absence, I was recently lured back into reading one of the popular HR trade magazines on the basis that it urged readers to learn from a particular firm’s prizewinning HR team. Under the heading “What you can learn from RSA: The happy couple.” People Management revealed what it takes to “scoop the top prize in the 2012 CIPD People Management Awards”.

I generally avoid these magazines largely because I get frustrated at the frequency with which articles help organizations (and sometimes the consulting firms they hire) make spurious claims about their own people management initiatives that seemingly have an incredible business impact. Such claims are often made with so called “evidence” when in fact the evidence used is often flimsy or very poor, and there is little critical evaluation made at all – essentially, the article becomes a very rose-tinted view but can have a significant influence on other HR practitioners.

This kind of overhyped article is dangerous as it creates a sense that everyone should do the same, and this one is no different. It focuses on how the organization has attempted to measure and increase employee engagement with apparent huge success in business performance terms. But if we take a little look at these claims, what can we uncover?

Firstly, in using the measurement system (Gallup’s Q12) adopted by this firm, it is not really measuring employee engagement at all, at least not in the way that many people understand the concept with (for example, see the CIPD Factsheet on Employee Engagement.) As Bakker and Leiter (2010) advise:

“Gallup’s engagement concept seems to overlap with well known traditional constructs such as job involvement and job satisfaction”[i]

While Professor Riccardo Peccei recently articulated:

“Gallup’s Q12 scale…does not actually assess individuals’ experience of engagement…it measures the antecedents [precursors] of engagement in terms of perceived job resources[ii]

Now, this is very different to what the article implies. If we take at face value the claim that there is a meaningful relationship between the firm’s measurement of engagement and one of its key business outcomes (customer service), perhaps they should claim that there is a positive relationship between staff who believe that they have better job resources and their ability to provide better customer service. Framing it within a wider employee engagement context conjures a much broader sense of what the firm believes it is measuring, addressing, and achieving – the article goes on to talk about a number of other initiatives that may well drive engagement but these are not necessarily ones that their measurement scale can get any good evidence around. Worryingly, the article advises that:

[This firm] “…has one word that sums up turning employee engagement around in only three years: rigour”

I don’t believe many HR functions really understand the level of rigour that they actually need and that what they are actually doing is often skewed from what they believe to be the case. As I found in the last two years with King’s College London’s State of HR survey[iii], most measurement of employee engagement is actually through re-using old concepts such as job satisfaction and commitment and that much employee engagement as defined by many organizations is likely to be different to how these organizations measure it.

Additionally, while there is widespread recognition of how important engagement is, organisations are not all necessarily talking about the same idea – i.e. engagement within one firm may not be of any relevance to others at all. This has very real implications in terms of whether organisations can use common approaches (such as Gallup’s Q12) to develop credible data to help with diagnosing key HR priorities, informing appropriate HR interventions and in measuring the impact of HR activities.

The use of such generic and narrowly constructed tools also has significant implications on whether an organisation can really use its engagement data together with business performance outcomes – to demonstrate a clear link between HR strategies and such outcomes, which this article implies through “correlations” it has found (as opposed to claiming that their engagement increases cause performance increases). The King’s survey findings indicate that many organizations have a limited ability to use engagement effectively such that they achieve the kind of performance they desire and this is despite the significant level of resources that may be invested in this particular aspect of HR functional activity.


[i] Work Engagement – A Handbook of Essential Theory and Research Edited by Arnold B. Bakker, Michael P. Leiter (Routledge, 2010)

[ii] Riccardo Peccei – Employee Engagement: An Evidence-based Review in Managing Human Resources (Wiley, 2013)

[iii] The State of HR 2013 (www.thestateofhr.com )

0 notes

CSR failures & the role of HR

How many of these failures should a highly capable and respected HR function have a role in preventing?

0 notes

What drives the performance of international assignees

AIRINC and King’s College London (KCL) are launching a unique and rigorous survey measuring the attitudes of international assignees. The survey aims to provide insight into the impact of an international assignment on key employee measures such as employee engagement and performance.

0 notes

Organisational health, HR sustainability, & performance

Attracting, developing and engaging the right people to create
organisational effectiveness and success is now not just a lever of
advantage but key to long term survival for many organisations.
However, the creation of a healthy organisation and a sustainable workforce
is a concept that few firms have truly embraced. Short term goals prevail
and people are rarely embedded within organisational strategy.


Our next conference on 12 September 2012 will examine how an organisation’s people are key to long term health, vitality and performance for organisations (see link above).

0 notes

Realising the potential of your own workforce

We have recently done work with some organisations highlighting how internal labour markets are highly under utilised. This link shows recent research on how external hires typically get paid more, often underperform and have much higher attrition rates than internal hires. Two clear messages emerge - internal labour markets generally do not work well, while external hiring needs to be very carefully made - if you can get people to stay beyond 2 years then they are more likely to outperform internal role fills.

0 notes

The State of HR 2012 webinar

We recently presented a webinar on the key findings from our 2012 State of HR Survey. Use the link to listen to:

  • Presenteesim – What is it? How common is it? What do you need to do about it?
  • Employee engagement - Why are engagement strategies falling and what are the implications?
  • Employee Health and wellbeing – is this really such a low HR priority? What does that mean for your business? How are you exposed?
  • Running lean workforces – is it sustainable? What are the knock on effects? What are the short and long term costs?
  • Talent management – Where should your HR resources be allocated? Does talent management actually make a difference?
  • HR metrics – What do you need? What is really useful?
  • Will metrics change the HR value proposition?

0 notes

A new HRM academy to tackle global people challenges

Today, we have created a new International Human Resources Management Academy (IHRMA) with Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR).  The academy, which will meet at least twice a year in New York City and London, is designed to be a forum for sharing cutting edge academic research, and new knowledge and ideas with HR leaders. In so doing, it will provide insight and understanding into highly demanding, strategically critical, current global HR management issues.

The 2012 forums include the following themes:

• Globalisation, global firms & emerging management challenges
• Changing HR paradigms and global value chains
• The changing role of global HR and the CHRO
• Developing international HR strategy, metrics & analytics and ROI
• Managing major organisational change across international boundaries
• Leveraging talent within the global organisation
• Organisational innovation and HRM
• People risk & reward in an international context
• Managing internationally mobile, remote and virtual teams

In participating in the International HRM Academy, participants will be exposed to new knowledge as it is being created as many of the speakers will present ongoing research and practice. In this way, participants will become part of a diverse learning community of like-minded professionals from organisations with a truly global footprint, sharing knowledge, experience and expertise.

0 notes

Why people need meaning - or why talent walks when a culture gets toxic

A fascinating insight into why people need purpose and meaning in their work, even bankers. This resignation letter from a senior exec at Goldman Sachs speaks volumes about how firms can undermine their ability to create a healthy and sustainable organisation by allowing corporate culture to skew from original ideals and values. We only have to remember Enron and Andersen to see where such toxic culture can eventually lead.

1 note

HR strategy & practices are not enough. They must be backed by good intentions

"Employees were more engaged when they believed HR practices  were motivated by the organization’s concern for high-quality service and employee well-being."

In this study Lisa Nishii, ILR associate professor at Cornell University examines the extent to which employees’ attitudes and behavior, both at the individual and unit level, are shaped by their beliefs of the motivations driving HR practices—why HR does what it does.

0 notes

Managing Employees during Organisational Change and Turmoil 29 March 2012

Drawing on ground breaking new research, our next workshop will explore how
employees react to organisational turmoil and what factors can predict whether employees respond positively to major organisational change. Using insights and evidence arising from a major international acquisition, the workshop will look at what firms should do to keep employees engaged in a pre and post change environment. It will also identify lessons on what effective HR interventions can be developed during and after reorganisation, and other significant organisational change.

Contact: stuart.woollard@kcl.ac.uk

0 notes