HR Roundtable: The Struggle With Defining Employee Engagement

The people gathering for the March HR Roundtable in Cincinnati were faced with “change” because Steve was called away for a great event recognizing one of his Team Members, so his best friend and mentor, Fred Eck, stepped in to tackle the topic of defining Employee Engagement.

To get the discussion kicked off, the following questions were posed:

  1. How does your organization define and implement “engagement?”
  2. What are we doing wrong when it comes to employee engagement?
  3. What could we do better?

Everyone broke into small groups and went at it with fervor!

The reality of the term “Employee Engagement” has become somewhat of an HR catch phrase. The groups were encouraged to not take that stance and see how engagement should look. Here’s what they shared:

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How is Employee Engagement defined and implemented?

  • It’s not! This isn’t a surprising answer to start the discussion. In too many organizations, engagement has become a program just like other efforts in diversity, development, performance management, etc. HR thinks it can put a bow or a box on this instead of looking how to bring clarity to it to make it a driving force within an organization.
  • Measurable goal setting and responsible for success. These are lofty ideals, but really they serve as a traditional structure. Employees and Sr. Management can have goals and not be engaged whatsoever. It does make sense to give engagement a framework, but a traditional model will yield traditional results.
  • Knowing what makes your employees tick. Very cool! It is amazing that most engagement efforts never take this step. Movements are designed in HR and then launched on the company without any input from employees. Take this vital step to gauge the temperature of your workers before you take any further steps.
  • Buying into Corporate Values and Culture. You want people who like being a part of your culture. Asking for “buy in” is a little on the compliance side of things, though. Understanding and building a great culture is essential, but buy in is a choice by people not something a company can expect or force upon someone.
  • Participation and having a stake in the results. Companies that expect participation will get more of a “buy in” than those that dictate behavior and norms. Allowing employees to take hold of performance and results is a huge positive trait for a company.
  • Aligning engagement with internal and external business objectives. In other words, define employee engagement as your fabric of how you do business vs. a culture. Doing this will allow people to thrive inside your business as well as promote it to others outside of it.

What are we doing wrong?

  • We think people having “fun” are engaged. If there was EVER a stereotype, or practice that HR needed to destroy, it’s this one. If HR is no more than the Fun Committee, then you might as well be a Cruise Director. Don’t get me wrong; fun is essential in the workplace (covered later), but mandatory fun is the bane of every company.
  • We think measuring satisfaction is the same as engagement. Most employee satisfaction surveys are honestly measures of what the company wants to hear. Are you paid enough? Is your workplace great? Safe? etc. It’s ironic that we encourage our candidate selection to have an open-ended approach, but once you’re an employee, we ask closed questions with slanted results and say we’re doing great. Needs to change!
  • We focus on employees “feeling good.” We get stuck on trying to control and manage people’s emotions in our workplaces. It’s not possible. The wonderful thing about humans is that we are emotional. Looking for conformity and only “allowing” people to feel or act in certain ways is the farthest thing away from engagement that there is.
  • Accountability is really punishment. When people say they want “accountability,” they really want people to “shut up and do things as I tell you to do them.” Isn’t that great? This is the most misused term in the workplace today. It’s just as if we haven’t left the institutionality of schools. If people just abide by the rules (whether they’re good or not), we’ll have a great culture. Good luck with that.
  • We focus on what’s wrong with things vs. what’s right. Every company across the globe starts each day by focusing on fixing what’s wrong – including people. This negative approach going in will always lead to frustration and inevitably EVERY employee will make their turn in the “Well, Steve could be better if  … (he did things like me).” This type of culture turns out to be very individualistic and not collaborative. It’s like a constant shark tank and you’re just waiting for the next scent of blood to hit the water.

What can we do better?

  • Be intentional. If HR would do this in all of its efforts around every facet of HR, then our field would be astounding. Engagement is a great place to start because it is such a direct connection with people. It’s time for us to practice intentionality all of the time and consistently and drop the program approach.
  • Paint the big picture. HR has the chance to bring the definition and direction to engagement efforts. This shouldn’t be a senior management project. It needs to be owned my HR. People will rally around engagement that has a catalyst. By being the lead, engagement has a chance to be real and tangible.
  • Show commitment by modeling behavior. You can’t expect others to be engaged if HR isn’t. Modeling isn’t a psychological approach, it’s a way of getting your skin in the game. Along with this, address those who choose to not be engaged. Don’t allow people to detract. Show them how they can be engaged and then help them do it.
  • Be genuine. Everyone hates fake people — everyone! So, allow yourself to be human in front of others. If you don’t do this, then your efforts will always be programmatic. The emotions of people make the challenges that much better to work through. Avoiding this will also lead to emotion – and not what you’re seeking.
  • Expect people to add value. This is different than expecting them to “perform.” If all employees are expected to bring value to their role, then engagement breeds itself. If they are only supposed to show up, then don’t expect engagement – expect perfect attendance.
  • Train your managers and supervisors. It is incomprehensible that companies will spend thousands and thousands of dollars on training on new product launches, strategic planning and other items, but little on treating people well. HR needs to make a stand and show that if managers and supervisors don’t look for and nurture engagement, then it will never take root. A focus of all metrics on managers and supervisors should include an overweighted factor on engagement. Make it their focus. If you do, you’ll see incredible results.
  • Allow individuality. Whether it’s career path, compensation, work space, hours, technology, etc. – let employees have the freedom to create, define and stretch what the norms are so that they can truly connect in their roles. If your company’s structure is so rigid that it comes first before employees, then don’t expect your retention to grow.
  • Be positive. This had to be written down because it doesn’t happen. In fact, positive people are often looked at with awkward stares and people wonder what’s “wrong” with them. The tone of engagement has to be positive throughout so that it can actually occur. Don’t overlook this. Instead – practice it!

It was a great session and people truly enjoyed discussing the topic because they want to be engaged.

If HR would remember that people want to do good work and add value naturally, then the entire approach to this topic would write itself !

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.



3 Comments on “HR Roundtable: The Struggle With Defining Employee Engagement

  1. Really great article Steve. This is still a subject that many people are debating the effectiveness of, and you have shed insight in a way that makes sense an show the true value of the engaged employee. It’s not about the fluffy stuff – having fun, feeling good, etc. It’s about treating people well, expecting value, and being sincere in your efforts to connect wit employees. Thanks!

  2. We have been using Gallup’s approach for past 5 years within emerging markets and its actionable research has resulted in significant improvements in both tangible business outcomes as well as improvements in employee productivity and retention within selected employee segments. Human Sigma-simple to understand and implement.

  3. This is very well written, Steve! I would add “consider implementing a mentoring program” to your “what can we do better” list. Mentoring offers employees the chance to grow both as individuals and as employees. Mentoring gives participants that sense of “buy in” like you suggested above by showing employees that you care about their career development both for themselves and for the continued growth of the company. Thanks for a great article. Will share with our networks!

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