The concept of employee engagement is a popular one. I have seen many claims that companies with higher employee engagement have better outcomes (e.g., higher customer loyalty, increased employee performance, business growth) than companies who do not. Consultants even tout their own measure of employee engagement and present research to show its effectiveness. From the stuff I read about the benefits of employee engagement, I figured I should learn more about this area. Turns out, there is a lack of critical thinking when it comes to employee engagement.
I recently stumbled upon an excellent article by Bill Macey and Ben Schneider from Valtera. In their paper, The Meaning of Employee Engagement, the authors reviewed prior research that they felt best represented the conceptual space of employee engagement. They present a conceptual framework by which to understand this loose engagement concept, helping to clarify the different meanings of employee engagement. This useful framework not only helps us speak clearly about this engagement construct, it can help companies understand how this "employee engagement" construct is impacted by the work environment and how it relates to important business outcomes. I will present a brief summary of their work below along with my review of some measures of employee engagement. For those of you who are interested in learning more about the concept of employee engagement, I highly recommend you read the Macey and Schneider article.
The Employee Engagement Construct
Macey and Schneider found a commonality across the various definitions of employee engagement that reflect three things about the concept of engagement:
- Employee engagement is a desirable condition
- Employee engagement has an organizational purpose
- Employee engagement suggests absorption, dedication, passion, enthusiasm, focused effort and energy on the part of the employee.
The authors continue to clarify the notion that employee engagement is different than employee satisfaction. Employee satisfaction is more about satiation; that is, employee satisfaction is about the employees' evaluation of different parts of their work environment, something external. Either the work environment has certain characteristics, or it does not. On the other hand, engagement connotes activation on the part of the employee, the willingness to expend his or her's discretionary effort to help the employer. The measurement of employee engagement needs to extend beyond the work environment and focus on something about the employee, something internal.
The Three Faces of Employee Engagement
The authors, to bring employee engagement into the measurable world, conceptualize the area of employee engagement as three distinct things.
- Disposition or Trait Engagement: This type of engagement reflects peoples' predisposition to experience the world from the perspective of enthusiasm and positive affectivity. Some people just have a positive outlook on life. This type of engagement suggests that certain people will naturally be predisposed to being engaged employees because that is how they approach everything in their lives.
- State Engagement: This type of engagement is psychological in nature and reflects internal feelings of energy and absorption. State engagement is impacted (directly and indirectly) by trait engagement, and different aspects of the work environment (e.g., job variety, autonomy, senior leadership and other HR practices).
- Behavioral Engagement: This type of engagement is represented in terms of discretionary effort on behalf of the employee (employees who consistently go above and beyond what is expected of them) to help the employer succeed.
Evaluating Employee Engagement Measures
I was able to find four measures of employee engagement in a short Web search. While these four metrics are not meant to be an exhaustive list of employee engagement measures, understanding the review process can help you evaluate your own employee engagement measures. I will evaluate each employee engagement metric using the four criteria I use when evaluating any metric derived from survey responses (see Four Things You Need To Know About Your Customer Metric): 1) definition of the metric, 2) how metric is calculated (including items and scoring method), 3) measurement properties of the metric (e.g., reliability and validity) and 4) usefulness of the metric (where is the business value?).
PeopleMetrics' Employee Engagement Index (EEI)
- Definition: PeopleMetrics offers no clear definition of this metric.
- Calculation: No information is offered on the items or how they are aggregated to calculate the final score.
- Measurement Properties: No reliability evidence is provided. To support the validity, they do show the benefits of increased employee engagement; the EEI does predict important business outcomes.
- Usefulness: Even though the EEI does predict business outcomes, the use of the term "employee engagement" is confusing. Without knowing the specific questions (or even just a representative sample of them), we do not know what is being measured. While the researchers attribute "employee engagement" as the underlying cause for the differences found using their metric, could those differences be explained through an "employee satisfaction" model. It is difficult to know exactly what is being measured by this index.
Gallup's Employee Engagement (EE)
- Definition: No definition of employee engagement is offered by Gallup.
- Calculation: This metric includes 12 questions (they appear in their brochure and are referred to as 12 Elements of Engagement). They calculate an Engagement Ratio but never specify how this ratio is calculated (e.g., what are the cutoff points on the rating scale that divides respondents to Engaged, Not Engaged and Actively Engaged employees?).
- Measurement Properties: There is no evidence of reliability of their metric. They do provide evidence that their EE metric predicts useful business outcomes (e.g., higher profitability, lower turnover); but, upon inspection of the actual survey questions, their employee engagement measure is really a measure of employee satisfaction. The questions focus on the employee's work environment (e.g., I have the materials I need to do my work right; My supervisor, or someone at work seems to care about me as a person; I have a best friend at work.).
- Usefulness: Even though the EE predicts business outcomes, the use of the term engagement to describe what is being measured is not warranted. The EE questions are simply descriptions of the work environment. They can be best described as employee satisfaction measures about different work areas.
Temkin Employee Engagement Index (TEEI)
- Definition: The Temkin Group offers no formal definition of this metric.
- Calculation: The TEEI is based on three questions: 1) I understand the overall mission of my company; 2) My company asks for my feedback and acts upon my input; 3) My company provides me with the training and the tools that I need to be successful. For each question, employees rate their level of agreement on a 1-7 scale. The overall metric is the sum across all three questions.
- Measurement Properties: There is no evidence of the reliability of their metric (does summing these three different questions make statistical sense?). They do offer some evidence of validity in that scores on the TEEI predict some business outcomes (e.g., higher employee loyalty, better customer experience).
- Usefulness: Similar to the EE above, the use of the term engagement to describe what this index measures is not warranted. The TEEI's three questions do not require the use of a new term, engagement, to describe what it measures. They are simply descriptions of the work environment or HR practices perceived by employees as facilitating their work. These items could be best described as employee satisfaction measures about these three work areas.
Schaufeli, Salanova et al.'s Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES)
First, this scale assesses different components of employee engagement: 1) Vigor, 2) Dedication and 3) Absorption.
- Definition: The authors provide a straightforward definition for each of their metrics. The authors state, "Vigor is characterized by high levels of energy and mental resilience while working, the willingness to invest effort in one’s work, and persistence even in the face of difficulties. Dedication refers to being strongly involved in one’s work and experiencing a sense of significance, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride, and challenge. Finally, Absorption is characterized by being fully concentrated and happily engrossed in one’s work, whereby time passes quickly and one has difficulties with detaching oneself from work."
- Calculation: The UWES has 17 questions (9 for the short form - UWES-9). The Vigor Scale has 6 (3) questions; the Dedication Scale has 5 (3) questions; the Absorption Scale has 6 (3) questions. For each questions, the employee is asked to indicate how frequently they felt this way at work on a 0 (Never) to 6 (Always / Every day) scale. A score for each of the three metrics is calculated as the average across their respective questions. An Overall Score for the entire UWES is calculated as the average rating across all 17 (9) questions.
- Measurement Properties: There ample evidence provided regarding the reliability and validity of this scale. Each scale has acceptable levels of measurement precision (they can detect small differences). They provide factor analytic results to show that their measure of employee engagement is different than employee burnout. Inspecting the survey questions, we see that the UWES reflects something about the employee's internal state (state engagement) rather than his or her evaluation about their work (e.g., At work, I feel full of energy; I am enthusiastic about my job; I am immersed in my work).
- Usefulness: These author's show that the UWES does predict service climate which, in turn, predicts employee performance and customer loyalty. Units with higher employee engagement had better outcomes (better service climate, better employee performance and higher customer loyalty) than units with lower employee engagement.
It appears that the concept of employee engagement suggests an underlying energetic/effort component felt on behalf of the employee that is favorable to the organization. Measures of employee engagement can include such feelings as absorption, dedication, passion, enthusiasm, focused effort and energy on the part of the employee. Employee engagement can be conceptualized as either a trait, a state and a behavior.
The employee engagement measures reviewed here differ in their quality as true measures of employee engagement. Based on the survey questions of some of these metrics, they are really measures of employee satisfaction with different areas of the organization and not employee engagement. Some measures lack a clear definition of the metric and the authors do not present information needed to critically evaluate their measures (e.g., sample of items, reliability, validity). Of the employee engagement metrics reviewed here, the best measure of state employee engagement is the Ulrecht Work Engagement Scale. This UWES reliably measures three underlying components of employee engagement. Scores on the UWES measure the internal state of the employees, not their satisfaction with the working conditions.
I have not seen any evidence that the use of employee engagement metrics provides additional value in understanding business growth beyond what we know using employee satisfaction metrics. Even though the UWES has been shown to be predictive of good business outcomes, I know of no evidence to show that it provides additional predictive power beyond what traditional employee surveys measure. To be of value to business, employee engagement measures need to tell us something more about the health of the employee relationship beyond what we already know through our traditional measures of employee satisfaction. Adding employee engagement questions to an already long employee survey could adversely impact response rates while providing little added (no) value.
Does the use of employee engagement metrics help us identify how to better allocate our resources to ensure long term business success? Until somebody shows me some convincing evidence that employee engagement measures provide value beyond what we know using traditional measures (e.g., employee satisfaction and employee loyalty), I will likely not use them in my practice.
The term, "employee engagement," is used loosely and carelessly across the blogosphere. This lazy practice only slows down the progress of our collective knowledge of what is real and what is not. Fortunately, you can challenge what you are told. The next time you read something about employee engagement, insist on a definition of their metric and some sample items. Are these proclaimed employee engagement metrics measuring something entirely different than employee engagement? A cursory examination of the questions would be a good start.
This lack of clarity in thought and writing is not unique to the concept of employee engagement. I see loosey goosey uses of words throughout the field of customer experience management (CEM). Specifically, the term "customer engagement" also suffers from lack of clarity and precision. Some measures of customer engagement include questions that are traditionally labeled as customer loyalty questions. Until there is clarity in our understanding of what we mean when we say "customer engagement," that term is meaningless to me. If the CEM field is to advance as a profession, it needs to use more precise terms to describe the variables with which it works.
Take a look at this recent segment on The Colbert Report as he mocks some of the terms we use.