Study: Employee Engagement Has Stablized, But Just Barely Improving

It’s another sign of our somewhat depressing and sluggish economic times that an ever-so-slight uptick in employee engagement is heralded as a big deal.

According to a press release from global HR consultant Aon Hewitt, “a new analysis released today by Aon Hewitt, the global human resource solutions business of Aon plc, showed a positive global shift in employee engagement-or emotional and intellectual involvement in the workplace.”

That sounds like a big deal until you get to the actual executive summary of AonHewitt’s 2012 Trends in Global Employee Engagement, where the language is much more sedate and less willing to trumpet such a “positive global shift.” It says:

Engagement levels are stabilizing globally but shifting across regions: Despite the economic recession, engagement levels have remained relatively stable at 58 percent in 2011, up two percentage points from 56 percent in 2010. We see the largest upward movement in Asia Pacific, a slight increase in Europe, small downward movement in Latin America, with North America staying the same.”

So, which is it — a positive shift, or, a simply a sign of stabilizing globally?

Four in 10 employees are “not engaged”

To be fair to AonHewitt, the press release does what any good press release should do — tout the survey and put the best possible spin on the numbers even if they don’t show any huge change. And, maybe that’s the point: that employee engagement doesn’t seem to be getting worse, but in fact, seems to have bottomed out and even ticked up ever so slightly.

Here are some of the other key findings and analysis from 2012 Trends in Global Employee Engagement, as highlighted in the Executive Summary:

  • Four employees out of 10 employees are not engaged worldwide. “Engagement level by region varies. While almost three- fifths (58 percent) of employees globally are considered in the engaged status, 42 percent of employees are somewhat or completely disengaged.”
  • Employees’ motivation to stay and exert extra effort seems to fall short. “While engagement levels are relatively stable, 2012 will be a challenging year for retention as employees seek new opportunities outside their organization as a result of limited career development and advancement opportunities.”
  • Some engagement drivers improved, but not the ones that matter most. “Across all possible engagement drivers we examined, we have seen some noteworthy improvement in Business Unit Leadership, HR Practices and Brand Alignment (fulfilling the employment contract or value proposition with employees). But, none of these areas showed up consistently as a top driver of engagement.”
  • Career opportunities, recognition, and organization reputation are consistently top engagement drivers. “Companies should focus their efforts on improving these areas in order to have the most immediate positive impact on overall engagement scores. However, engagement drivers vary by region.”

How AonHewitt defines engagement

This AonHewitt survey also addresses the age-old question, “Just what is employee engagement, anyway?” And to its credit, 2012 Trends in Global Employee Engagement does a good job defining it like this:

Aon Hewitt defines engagement as the state of emotional and intellectual involvement that motivates employees to do their best work. The Aon Hewitt model examines both the individual’s state of engagement as well as organizational antecedents. This employee engagement model has been tested and validated by over 15 years of research on millions of employees across a variety of companies and industries, and across Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and North America. The model is supported by years of research in the area of organizational psychology.

Engagement is an individual psychological and behavioral state.”

They also indicate that these three conditions are a key part of employee engagement:

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  • SAY: “Consistently speak positively about the organization to co-workers, potential employees, and customers.”
  • STAY: “Have an intense desire to be part of the organization.”
  • STRIVE: “Exert extra effort and engage in behaviors that contribute to business success.”

If you’re interested, you should dig into 2012 Trends in Global Employee Engagement and examine the various drivers of engagement in various parts of the world. It’s too much to get into here, but you may find some insights that are worthwhile to your own organization and situation.

“Business leadership as well as HR programs that meet the needs of specific employee segments contributed to the uptick in engagement levels,” said Pete Sanborn, co-president of Global Compensation and Talent at Aon Hewitt, in a press release about the latest survey.

He added: “However, with one out of every four people not engaged worldwide, more needs to be done. As the economy improves, retaining top talent is going to be difficult. Now is the time for organizations to measure and gain insights on engagement drivers and to start doing the work necessary to improve engagement. Our research shows that organizations with higher engagement have significantly higher total shareholder return than the average company, so organizations that focus on what matters most in connecting employees to their work will emerge as leaders, and the others will be left behind.”

“Employee engagement is critical”

Pete Sanborn is right, of course. A lot more needs to be done when it comes to employee engagement, but when will more organizations get serious and quit paying lip service to the notion that more engaged workers are simply better for the business?

AonHewitt’s 2012 Trends in Global Employee Engagement survey says this in a number of ways, but none quite so pointed as this passage from the Executive Summary:

Given the economic volatility we anticipate in 2012, employee engagement is critical — arguably more so than in more normal conditions. For large multinational employers operating in multiple regions, this means a one- size-fits-all strategy for engagement across the globe will not work. The employee engagement dynamics and resultant human capital interventions and outcomes may vary significantly depending on the industry or region of the model in which you operate. Regardless, one thing is certain — employees and their behavior are at the center of business success (or failure). Ensuring that employees invest discretionary effort in the right behaviors will be critical in delivering the business results needed in conditions of recession, stagnation, or rapid growth. …

The bottom line is that employee engagement matters— now more than ever. … The companies that get engagement “right” will enjoy a source of competitive advantage in talent strategy and business results that is hard for others to replicate.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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