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What’s Wrong With Employee Engagement? The Top 20 Potential Problems

by Feb 23, 2012, 5:54 am ET

This “think piece” is part of a series of articles I wrote to expand your thinking about strategic HR.

Employee engagement is at or near the top of most surveys that cover the concerns of HR leaders. Almost everyone is enthusiastic about the concept and their program. However, there is far too little focus on the problems or issues related to engagement.

My research and experience with HR leaders has helped me compile a list of the potential issues, problems, and concerns that should be considered by anyone involved in employee engagement. The process of gathering engagement data and the interpretation of it both improve dramatically when program managers and users are fully aware of all of its potential problems. The following article highlights each of these potential issues in bullet point format.

The Top Problems With Employee Engagement Programs

The top potential issues/problems are split into five categories. And within each category, the most impactful problem areas are listed first.

Issues Related to Proving Its Business Impact

  • Engagement is not productivity or an output — using an analogy, engagement may be smoke but it is not fire. The primary concern of business leaders is increasing productivity, output, or innovation. Unfortunately, employee engagement, employee satisfaction, emotional intelligence, etc. may contribute to productivity, but they are not productivity. An employee may be fully engaged and emotionally tied to the firm but without the proper training, leaders, resources, etc. no amount of commitment will improve their outputs. Emotional states are hard to understand and measure, while behaviors and productivity are not. A superior approach is one that looks broadly at all of the factors that increase productivity, that lower labor costs, and that increase the value of labor outputs and innovation.
  • An unclear definition — if something can’t be clearly defined, then it can’t be accurately measured. And there are literally dozens of contradictory definitions of “employee engagement.” And because of these contradictory definitions (and measures), it is hard to accurately compare the results from external statistical comparison studies. The Conference Board defines employee engagement as “a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his or her work.” Using this definition, the results of high engagement are “stronger emotional feelings” and” increased effort.” Although these two factors may be important, other factors like a bad manager, the wrong skills, and improper training may neutralize any benefit from engagement. Some engagement surveys include multiple factors (i.e. satisfaction, performance, sentiment, trust, morale, happiness, burnout, commitment) but many of these may be overlapping or duplications of the same factor.
  • Engagement may be a byproduct, not a cause -- literally every engagement study I have seen that attempts to connect engagement with productivity, retention, customer satisfaction, being a top performer, etc. makes the connection using statistical correlations. Other correlational studies have shown that firms with high engagement scores can have higher revenue per employee, high company growth rates, and earning higher shareholder returns. But don’t jump to any unwarranted conclusions. Fortunately, any business analysts, statistician, or CFO can tell you that correlations can never prove cause and effect. Providing correlations as proof of cause and effect is a stretch of both mathematics and logic. Another alternative explanation for the apparent connection between engagement and productivity is that when employees are productive, well rewarded, recognized, well-managed, and when they produce a great product, then it is those workplace factors that eventually increase their engagement. The improvement of workplace factors can also explain the few cases where rising engagement scores actually preceded a later improvement in business results. If an organization changes the way it managed (i.e. increased overtime, eliminated pay and hiring freezes, moved in better managers, opened communications and offered more training) and employees see new products in the pipeline, this better treatment, improved management, and the resulting optimism would increase employee engagement and eventually company performance. But it would be a mistake to assume that, even though the increase in engagement preceded the improvement in company performance, that the engagement caused the improvement in company performance. Engagement may be a byproduct of other more impactful people-management factors. In many cases, it is not the engagement that is driving the productivity but vice versa.
  • The ROI may be low – the cost of employee surveys themselves are high, because in addition to the survey costs, each employee must spend paid time filling them out. The time spent analyzing, interpreting, and presenting the results can also be significant. This coupled with the fact that any “action” to improve engagement must be implemented company-wide makes it a significant possibility that the costs outweigh the benefits. None of the existing efforts to prove its value include employee time in their cost calculations, and no one has published a “split sample” to prove the dollar value of the before-and-after benefits in a corporation. Consider the possibility that the time and money spent could have a greater impact if it were focused directly (rather than indirectly) on productivity and innovation.
  • Outside factors may influence engagement — we know from morale and employee satisfaction surveys that many factors outside of the workplace influence these ratings. The unemployment rate, the cost of living, the mortgage crisis, and family crises are but a few of the many factors that influence an employee’s relative feelings toward their company. For example, in times of dramatically high unemployment, employees may “feel” a closer emotional tie to the firm simply because they are happy that the firm has provided them with a job. In some cases, external attacks or bad press for the company may actually cause employees to “circle the wagons” and to increase their loyalty and engagement. Certainly no one in HR can take direct credit if one or more external factors are the reason why the scores improved.
  • High levels of engagement may not prohibit turnover — at least one study by Accenture showed a weak connection between engagement and turnover. That study found that 43% of the most “highly engaged workers have a weak or lukewarm intention to stay.” This and similar studies suggest that over-relying on even the very highest engagement scores may result in the loss of key talent. So do your own research within your own firm to prove that engagement causes people to stay, work harder, or be more productive.
  • You can perform extremely well without an emotional tie — there is plenty of hard evidence from sports and entertainment that individuals can perform extremely well even without an emotional tie to the organization. Professionalism, pride, the pay, and job security are among the many factors that cause individuals to perform and to stay at an organization. Hiring and retaining individuals that are motivated by other reasons may be an alternative approach to relying on an emotional tie. Loyalty itself may be overrated if your company operates in a fast-changing environment. This is because your most loyal employees are likely to be enamored with the corporate culture and “the way things are done here.” This could mean that the most loyal employees are the most resistant to change, and to make matters worse, they may consciously push your most-needed change agents and innovators out of the firm.
  • Too strong of an emotional tie may actually cloud your performance – there are numerous firms including Kodak, Xerox, and from my personal experience HP, where the firm was extremely successful in building loyalty and emotional ties with their employees. In fact, the emotional tie was so strong that it clouded their perception and resulted in groupthink. Having everyone “think like family” has many positive aspects but it may also cause employees to act on emotions rather than facts. Consider the possibility that too much “engagement” may cloud decision-making and cause employees to discount external threats and the need for change. Loyal employees are likely to stay forever but a lack of good management and strategies may cause innovators to move on. Corporate culture “antibodies” may also attack new hires that have yet to prove their loyalty.
  • Why measure emotion rather than behaviors? — I find it interesting that professionals who demand a focus on “actions and behaviors” during behavioral interviewing are quite comfortable relying on emotional states when it comes to employee engagement. Actions and behaviors are observable and measurable, while emotions or even effort are much more difficult to observe, quantify, and measure.
  • Using outside results to prove business impact may be difficult — because so many different surveys with different questions are used by outside organizations, it is difficult to use some external results to prove that increasing engagement increases productivity and retention. Unless you use the same survey under the same conditions, results metrics from other organizations simply can’t be used as a basis for justifying business impacts at your firm. Using a survey vendor that also services many of your competitors may help to mitigate this problem.

Issues Related to the Actions You Take to Improve Engagement

  • Results may not be actionable — employee engagement is measured through anonymous employee surveys. Unfortunately, most of those surveys only report the employee’s perception of their level of engagement, but not the causes or factors that “caused” the level of engagement. It is also possible that engagement (like IQ and EQ) cannot be easily changed with the tools available to corporations. And even if you have evidence that the scores can change as a result of management actions, leaders have to guess or use trial and error to determine what factors to change and how to change them in order to increase engagement levels.
  • Identifying the most powerful actions may be difficult — we know from the Hawthorne studies that merely paying attention to workers may increase their satisfaction and productivity levels. If that effect is present here, it may make little difference which action you select to improve low engagement, because it is the mere act of taking action and paying attention that increases engagement scores. Obviously if “anything works,” it will be more difficult for program leaders to identify the actions with the most immediate impact, with the lowest costs and the highest bottom-line impacts.
  • The time it takes for actions to increase engagement — there are ethical questions as to whether corporations should be changing the emotional states of its employees. However, if your goal is to increase engagement, first you must know which actions directly improve engagement, but you must also know how long it takes. Since under most definitions, you are dealing with feelings and emotional attachment, it may take years of using the most-effective approaches in order to permanently increase the scores. And unfortunately, if there is a multiyear lag between changing the way we treat employees and their improved engagement, most existing business and statistical process will never be able to find, no less prove, a cause-and-effect connection.
  • Diverse employees and different generations are engaged by different things – most engagement efforts rely on the principle that the same factors increase engagement, and the same improvement actions have an equal impact on every employee. However, we know from generational research that attitudes and expectations about the role of work and company loyalty differ dramatically between generations. The same complexity can be found when trying to influence the engagement of employees who are diverse or that are from different demographic backgrounds. To make matters more complex, employees working around the globe will have a different and sometimes even a negative response to actions designed to improve engagement in the U.S. Asserting that “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to the factors that cause engagement and the actions that will improve emotional attachment and effort is not defensible. In addition, it may not be possible for employees with a fixed mindset to change their engagement level, while other more malleable employees may change it on a whim several times a year.

Issues Related to the Survey Process

  • Unreliable responses — engagement surveys suffer the same problems as all employee surveys. The fact is that they may be filled out to please their manager, to get even … or a lack of interest may cause employees to “Christmas tree” their answers. The time of the year that surveys are given (i.e. immediately after bonus season) may also influence the result. As with most surveys, it is also possible that excited and disgruntled employees will go out of their way to fill them out, or not-very-busy employees with idle time will disproportionately fill them out. And finally, if employees don’t see that their survey scores result in a change in management behavior, they are likely to think “not that again” when the next survey arrives for them to complete.
  • Anonymous surveys mean you don’t know who to target — almost all engagement surveys are anonymous, in order to improve honesty. Because of this anonymity, you don’t know who filled them out, so you can’t be sure that you have a representative sample that fairly represents what all employees really feel. Unfortunately because the results are anonymous, that means that there is no way to target your engagement improvement efforts to key individuals, high-performers, and high-impact jobs and business units that have low engagement scores. Although some surveys allow you to separate scores by business unit, if you only have companywide results, your only options are company-wide shotgun actions rather than a pinpoint effort. Unless you can connect the scores to individual business units, it’s almost impossible to tell if a successful management effort to increase scores in that unit actually improved the unit’s productivity and output.
  • If employee engagement data collected too often/often enough? — the survey is traditionally done once or twice a year but if employee engagement scores don’t change rapidly, a survey every two years may be more cost-effective. And if employee engagement really has a major impact and it can rapidly change, engagement scores should be reported instantly in real time, using an employee-sampling technique and an electronic survey.
  • Is employee engagement hired or developed? — because new hires are not given an engagement survey during onboarding, it is difficult to know whether you are “hiring engagement” (as a result of the cultural assessment during the hiring process) or later developing employee engagement.

Manager Issues

  • Managers don’t “own” engagement — a quick survey of managers asking “Who owns employee engagement?” will tell you quickly that most managers believe the program is owned by HR. Unless managers “own” and also believe that engagement impacts their business success, they are not likely to devote much time to it. In addition, employee engagement can also be an “orphan” program within HR. In order to be fully effective, it must be seamlessly integrated with every other talent management function.
  • Managers and employees don’t understand engagement — HR is often full of excellent psychologists with a full understanding of employee engagement; however, managers and employees can find it confusing. Simply reporting engagement scores without fully explaining their impact can result in a “that’s interesting” response from managers and employees.
  • The reporting of engagement scores can be ineffective — an employee engagement process can only be effective if managers read, fully understand, and act on their low engagement scores. So how employee engagement scores are reported and explained makes a major difference. Managers receive weekly reports on productivity, output, quality, etc. but none of those weekly reports include employee engagement scores. Unless engagement becomes a part of standard business and financial reporting, it is unlikely that managers will recognize it as a major business impact factor.
  • Managers are not rewarded for engagement — managers tend to focus on factors that are measured, recognized, and rewarded by senior management. If managerial performance appraisal, bonus criteria and promotion criteria do not include high engagement scores, it is less likely that managers will focus on it.

Issues Related to Engagement Program Administration

  • The goals and metrics of engagement programs are often limited — most corporate engagement programs have a single goal of improving engagement scores. However, if you could prove that you reached them, including “business impact goals” like improving productivity, revenue, product quality, or customer service would increase the likelihood that your work would get the attention of senior management. Many engagement efforts also use a single metric or measure — the companywide engagement score. Other metrics that should be considered for inclusion include manager/employee satisfaction with process, the program ROI, and the dollar value of the impacts of HR engagement actions on productivity, output, and business goals.

Final Thoughts

Both my research and my experience with corporate leaders have shown me that employee engagement programs have a great deal of potential. However, their actual business impact is often lessened by the fact that those running them and those who provide vendor services have not done their due diligence in identifying and solving the many potential problems that have been presented here. Rather than emotionally defending a program, if you expect to become a true business partner, a superior approach is to apply lean HR tools to critically assess and improve every component of the program.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.