HR initiatives risk failure because businesses oversimplify engagement, finds report

Organisations also ‘overlooking’ role of line managers in delivering strategies

Organisations are at risk of having their initiatives stall because they oversimplify the concept of employee engagement, a new report has warned.

The research from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) discovered that organisations are routinely conflating the concept of employees’ engagement with their jobs with the concept of engagement with their employer. 

The report – Bridging the gap: an evidence-based approach to employee engagement – found that this failure to understand that employees could be highly engaged with their job but not their company, and vice versa, meant HR strategies designed to boost engagement were not having the desired effect.

“There’s a two-pronged approach that organisations should be taking – using the external evidence, so using academic evidence, but also really listening to the needs of the employees within the organisation,” Megan Edwards, IES research fellow and author of the report, told People Management. “You can create a strategy, but unless it’s targeted to the needs of what people are experiencing within the organisation, you’re not really going to get anywhere.”

Edwards added organisations often also “overlooked” the role of line managers in delivering employee engagement initiatives.

“If you speak to the line managers, I don’t think they’ll realise how key they are in the process, because you can get bogged down in the day-to-day work and also, their own frustrations sometimes within organisations,” she said. “So it’s really important for them to understand how important they are in the engagement process.”

Commenting on the IES research findings, Dan Cable, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School and author of Alive at Work, said: “Unfortunately, I think too many HR managers focus on superficial benefits that might increase job satisfaction – such as gym memberships, interesting office spaces or good cafeteria food – instead of increasing engagement by activating employees’ seeking systems [the part of the brain which creates an impulse to explore and learn] around the work itself.”

Earlier research indicated employees are not as engaged as their employers might hope. A Gallup study, published last October, found just 11 per cent of UK employees felt engaged at work, while 21 per cent were actively disengaged. 

Meanwhile, back in January, speakers at the CIPD Employee Engagement Conference said organisations were missing opportunities to use engagement to tackle toxic working cultures, workplace sexual harassment and other incidences of organisational failure. 

Speaking at the event, CIPD membership director David D’Souza said: “As a profession, we need to start thinking of engagement as a broader concept. Ask yourselves: when people come into work, are they worse human beings than they were before? That is at the heart of engagement, and getting it right begins with walking towards the things that are wrong.”

And, writing for People Management last year, Dr Sarah-Jane Cullinane, assistant professor in HRM and organisational behaviour at Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, argued employee engagement strategies which encouraged staff to blend their personal and professional lives risked unintentionally creating a workforce full of workaholics