What is Employee Engagement Anyway?

Many managers have heard of the phrase “employee engagement” — but do you really understand what that means? What is the definition of employee engagement?

-Emotional connection an employee feels

Employee engagement is complex.  There’s not one specific attitude or  behavior which indicates whether an employee is fully engaged, it involves a combination of attitudes and behaviors and it’s different for every individual.  Employee engagement is job satisfaction, loyalty and commitment to the organization, involvement in the job, a feeling of empowerment.

Most employees are hired fully engaged – they’re excited about their new job, eager about the potential for growth within the company, willing to learn new processes, and have an overall positive outlook about the company and their position in it.  It’s important to try to maintain this level of engagement throughout the employee’s time with the company and not let the employee become disengaged.

Employee engagement is not a once-a-year initiative.  For successful businesses, it should be a part of the everyday culture of the organization.

Why Should You Be Concerned About Employee Engagement?

An engaged workforce will increase your bottom line in a number of ways — here’s a few examples:

  • Increased Employee Morale, Motivation, and Productivity
  • Lower Rates of Workplace Accidents
    • A Gallup study found that the top 25 percent of engaged workers had 50 percent fewer accidents as well as significantly lower health costs.  Engaged employees are less likely to be injured on the job because they are putting forth their best effort and are focused on performing their responsibilities correctly, efficiently, and safely.  Your engaged employees are more likely to make suggestions and implement needed changes to existing safety programs.
  • Reduce Turnover
    • Employees who describe themselves as engaged are also likely to say they are loyal to their company and feel a commitment to working well to help the company grow and remain successful.  The opposite is true for disengaged employees – many of them are actively searching for another opportunity.  If you’ve got a lot of disengaged employees, you’re likely to have a high turnover rate.  Turnover has significant costs for employers; the Society for Human Resource Management has estimated that turnover costs can be as much as 100-300 percent of the departed employee’s annual salary!
  • Reduce Employee Stress, Illness, and Absenteeism
    • Lacking motivation and commitment to their job and/or employer, employees who are disengaged are more likely to have unplanned absences.  These unplanned absences can result in significant costs to your business including the wages paid to the absent employee, wages paid to replacement workers to cover the duties of the absent employee (which sometimes results in overtime pay that would not have otherwise been needed), and the administrative costs associated with managing absenteeism.  There are also some indirect costs including reduced productivity and fatigue of workers required to work overtime because of their coworker’s absence which can result in poor quality of goods/services, safety issues, and poor morale.
  • Increase Customer Satisfaction and Stay Competitive in Your Industry
    • You’ve heard that misery loves company? That’s true even in a customer relationship.  Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has said “Negativity can only feed on negativity” – and you certainly don’t want your customer thinking negatively of your company! An employee with a negative attitude can come off as dismissive to concerns from your customers because the employee doesn’t care about the job they are doing.  One unhappy customer can spread their negative experience with others which could have a significant effect on your sales.  Because of this, an engaged workforce can provide you with a competitive edge over others in your industry.  Dale Carnegie found that companies with engaged, satisfied employees may outperform their competitors by as much as 202 percent!

What Are the Signs of a Disengaged Employee?alone-62253_1280

There are several similar attitude and behavior types among disengaged employees:

  • The Chronic Complainer
    • “Why do I have to do this?” “I Hate doing this!” “Why doesn’t [Coworker] have to do this?” You know the type. No matter how many changes you make to try to help this employee they will always find something to complain about.
  • The Excuse Maker
    • “That’s how we’ve always done it.” “[Coworker] told me to.” “I didn’t receive enough training.” In every situation this type of employee is unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. There is always someone or something else that contributed to the employee’s work.
  • The Unenthusiastic
    • Nothings gets this employee excited at work.  They go through the motions to make it through the day but they’re not willing to get involved in providing feedback and they’re certainly not interested in trying to help improve the business.
  • The Liar
    • Everybody knows one. You never know what you can believe or not when it comes to this employee. They tell you their work is done when it hasn’t been started, they fake being ill to get out of working on a project, and they change their story every time they tell it.
  • The Unhelpful
    • Whether the task is big or small, this employee is not willing to lift a finger to help someone else. Perhaps they “milk the clock” to drag out their own responsibilities so there’s no time to help others, or maybe they flat out refuse to provide assistance to a colleague.  Either way, teamwork is a foreign concept to this type of employee.
  • The Gossip
    • This employee can tell you all about what their coworker has been doing (or not doing) at work and might be the cause of the rumors spread among colleagues. They listen for “juicy information” about the company or other employees and can’t resist sharing the details with others.
  • The Independent
    • This employee will only work alone. They are not willing to cooperate with colleagues, don’t want to socialize with others, and always keep to themselves during company meetings and/or social functions.
  • The Know-It All
    • This employee cannot be told they are wrong and don’t even think about arguing with them or trying to teach them something new!
  • The Lazy
    • This employee does the absolute minimum amount of work to get through the day.  They spend time looking for work that they can get someone else to do for them.  Going “above and beyond” is not something you would ever find them doing.
  • The Irresponsible
    • This is the employee who left cash out on the register (again!), forgets to lock up the door when closing for the day, or doesn’t follow safety rules.  You can’t rely on this person to show up on time – or maybe it’s a surprise when they show up at all!
  • The Withdrawn
    • This employee used to interact with colleagues and participate in company meetings but has since pulled away and no longer shares information or contributes anything in group conversations.
  • The Distracted
    • This employee is never fully present.  Often seen daydreaming or working on something personal – they act as if they have many other things they’d rather be doing than performing their job responsibilities.

As previously mentioned, it’s important to note that not all disengaged employees have the same behaviors.  You may have a disengaged employee that you thought of when reading multiple descriptions above, or maybe an employee you believe is disengaged doesn’t fit any of these descriptions at all.

How Can You Determine If Your Employees Are Engaged?

If you’re unsure of whether or not your employees are engaged, try asking yourself some of these questions:

  1. Do my employees come in to work early or stay late to get their work done?
  2. Do my employees often suggest solutions to problems or attempt to resolve problems on their own before bringing the issue to management?
  3. Do my employees look happy?
  4. Do my employees take responsibility for the projects they are working on?
  5. Do my employees embrace new challenges and request additional responsibilities?
  6. Are my employees fully utilizing their knowledge and skills?

If your answers to the questions above are mostly yes – good for you! Your employees are likely engaged! But if your answers to the questions are mostly no, or if you’re unsure, then you likely have a disengaged workforce.


Another option to determine whether your employees are engaged is to perform an employee engagement survey.  You can either hire a consultant to administer the survey for you or use a free online questionnaire service. Your survey should ask questions like whether an employee would refer a family member or friend to work for the company, whether employees feel their colleagues are performing well, how employees would rate their relationship with their direct supervisor, etc.

It’s not enough to just administer the survey. Be prepared to share the results, whether favorable or unfavorable, with all levels of management as well as with employees.  Managers should ask employees for suggestions for improvement for some of the bigger problems in attempt to increase employee engagement.


How Can Engagement Be Improved?

Although the level of engagement an employee experiences is ultimately up to that employee, there are some things that managers can do to create a work environment which promotes engagement.

Improving employee engagement should not just be a Human Resource Department initiative.  All managers and leaders in the company will need to be on board in order to be successful.

Here are some suggestions:

Management Training

Your managers must understand the effects of a disengaged workforce and should be held responsible for keeping their employees engaged.  This is especially important in large organizations where employees don’t interact with senior management on a daily basis.  Based on a Towers Watson 2014 Global Workforce Study, 30 percent of employees report a lack of supervisor support and an Employee Engagement Study done by Dale Carnegie found that 80 percent of employees who are dissatisfied with their direct manager are disengaged.

You should provide managers at all levels of the organization with training to help them identify the signs of a disengaged employee and provide them with guidance on steps to take to improve employee engagement in all areas of the company.  For more suggestions on getting managers on board with improving engagement, check out this post previously published on Enlightened Employer.

Clear and Effective Communication

It’s important to make sure that all employees are clear about what the expectations of their role are and how their work contributes to the overall success of the business.  For some industries this is harder than for others, but it’s really important that the employee understands that the work they are performing is valuable. Make sure you are listening to employees – ask them for suggestions for improvements to problem areas, listen to concerns they have and encourage employees to help come up with solutions to resolve them.  When employees feel involved in the business they are more likely to be engaged.

You should also provide continuous feedback to employees.  Employees should be coached on a regular basis. Let them know when they’re doing a good job and talk to them about any performance issues and suggest ways to improve those issues.  Don’t wait for an annual review to go over a year’s worth of mistakes!

Reward and Recognize

Don’t settle for a “quick fix” reward such as pay increases or a new benefit. These may work for the short term, but the disengagement will likely continue because you are only treating the symptoms of the disengagement rather than getting to the root of the issues.

Try to recognize your employees for good performance. This helps to reinforce what the expectations are for their position and helps reinforce behaviors that reflect the values of the company.  The recognition doesn’t have to be monetary – try sending a thank you note or email or provide public recognition in front of colleagues for a job well done.  A Workforce Mood Tracker survey found that 69 percent of employees have said that they will work harder for a company that recognizes their achievements. So make sure your employees are recognized for meeting and exceeding your expectations!

Build Trust and Respect

Treat employees with the respect they deserve. This can be done in a number of ways including clear communication and recognition of a job well done, both previously mentioned.  You also want your employees to respect their coworkers and managers.  Managers should treat all employees fairly and in a way that promotes a respectful relationship.

It’s also important that a level of trust be built and maintained among employees and also between employees and management. Try not to keep employees guessing as to how the business is doing or what direction the company is going. An employee who is aware of the next steps and long term plans and goals for the company is more likely to be engaged.

Empower Employees and Hold Them Accountable

Another way of showing you trust and respect your employees is by giving them the power to make some decisions about how their work is performed and holding them accountable for the results. Employees who are given more responsibility are likely to have a sense of ownership in the work they are performing which motivates them to perform at their best.  Being held accountable also can help build loyalty to the company because the employee is investing their time and energy in attempt to help the business.

Encourage Healthy Work/Life Balance

Net Impact found that 88 percent of employees polled believed it is crucial to have a health work/life balance, as well as a positive atmosphere in the workplace. You can assist your employees in balancing their work with their personal and family activities by doing one or more of the following: offer a flexible work schedule, provide paid time off (PTO), encourage employees to use their PTO each year by only allowing a small amount (if any) to carry over into the following year, encourage your managers to model a healthy work/life balance, discourage employees from checking email and doing work from home after business hours, offer part time work or job sharing between employees.


One of the objectives of all successful businesses should be to keep their employees engaged.  A company with an engaged workforce has higher morale, productivity, and customer satisfaction and lower rates of accidents, turnover, and employee absenteeism. Be on the look out for the signs of a disengaged employee (complaining, excuse making, gossiping, etc) and train your managers to be watching for the signs as well.

Remember that creating a positive atmosphere for employees should be an ongoing initiative and not just an annual activity. Recognize your employees for good performance on a regular basis and give your employees responsibility to make some decisions regarding how they are performing their job duties.

Keep in mind that employee engagement won’t change overnight. You may not see immediate changes to your bottom line when implementing a strategy to improve employee engagement, but don’t let that discourage you!

What other tips do you have to improve employee engagement? What things have been put in place at your business that you have found to be successful?


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