Defining Employee Engagement

This excerpt from "Finding a Definition of Employee Engagement" was written by John Gibbons as part of an Executive Action Series report by The Conference Board in June.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008
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Becoming a Skillful Manager of Employee Engagement -- Making Informed Decisions

The various definitions of employee engagement within the research literature, along with the large number of drivers that have been identified as the primary causes for engagement, clearly illustrate the wide variety of perspectives that are represented by both researchers and consultants. With this in mind, it is important to understand that selecting a consulting service to assist one's company in developing and implementing an employee engagement strategy requires an understanding of the built-in assumptions that each consulting firm brings with them.

Business leaders who are in the process of selecting a firm to help them develop and implement their employee-engagement strategies need to be discriminating and informed consumers. There are a number of points to keep in mind when considering these services:

1. There is no sole authority or single definition that represents the right or wrong way of thinking about employee engagement. One should choose the definition and set of intervention strategies for employee engagement that best align with the company's overall corporate and human capital goals. Companies should also understand that these goals, and therefore the engagement strategy, will change over time.

2. Because there really isn't strong consensus among consulting firms and thought leaders about the definition or drivers of employee engagement, business leaders should not let any particular consulting firm convince them that there is only one way to define and measure it. They should shop around for a firm whose brandable approach best aligns with their company's goals.

3. The definition for "employee engagement" that a company chooses will also influence how it measures employee engagement. Think about the axiom, "if the only tool you have is a hammer, you are likely to see a lot of nails." Be sure that both the operational definition and your employee survey tools are aligned to the company's overall human capital strategies.

4. Be careful about benchmarking employee-engagement scores with other companies?even those within the same industry. The company's unique goals should determine its operational definition of employee engagement. In turn, this definition will determine how and what it measures about its employees.

5. Culture matters. Organizational considerations are important, but so is the cultural context of the countries and local communities in which the company operates. There are a lot of unanswered questions related to crosscultural dynamics of employee engagement in the research literature (which are the subject of current research at The Conference Board), so care should be given to align the company's employee engagement strategies with both its internal and external environments.

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It is clear that the definition one uses for employee engagement has profound implications for how one's company will measure it and act to improve it. Regardless of whether a company chooses to use an outside consulting firm to help it to develop its employee engagement strategies, there are multiple and often competing definitions from which to choose.

Defining employee engagement is a challenge to practitioners, consultants, and academics alike. By understanding that there is not a strong consensus about the specifics, human capital managers can be wise consumers by selecting operational definitions that align with their particular companies' overall strategies. Ultimately, the question for the company is not "What is employee engagement?" but, rather, "What is employee engagement to us?"

Reprinted with permission of The Conference Board (, a not-for-profit business research organization with offices in New York, Brussels, and Hong Kong.

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