The Truth About Employee Engagement: What HR Needs to Know

July 12, 2019 by Josh Hrala

The buzz around employee engagement has never been louder. This has, mostly, stemmed from the fact that we’re currently living in one of the tightest labor markets in modern history.

With unemployment low and retention problems popping up across most of the business world, many have come to terms with the fact that they’ve ignored employee engagement for far too long.

Because of this, there are tons and tons of guides out there that aim to help HR leaders and businesses in general figure out how to increase employee engagement in a way that keeps people around longer while also having them perform at their max.

But what’s the truth about employee engagement? Is there a silver bullet answer that works across industries, roles, experience levels? Can employee engagement even be increased at all?

To help with this, we’ve decided to take an honest look at employee engagement and the answer some of the previous questions. Let’s dig in at the beginning.

The Truth About Employee Engagement: The Stats

First off, what is employee engagement?

This seems like an easy questions but in reality many managers and HR leaders look at the wrong thing. Employee engagement is how well an employee is actively engaged with their role. Fully engaged employees care about the company’s mission, future success, and have a real stake in how that success comes about.

truth about employee engagement

Employee engagement isn’t just showing up consistently or even doing a job well. Those employees are good workers (don’t get us wrong, you want good workers) but are they truly engaged workers? The stats say probably not.

The truth about employee engagement is that most employees (by a huge margin) are not engaged. According to a 2016 Gallup report, only 13 percent of employees worldwide are fully engaged and 32 percent of US workers are engaged. A newer report, from 2018, shows that this figure rose slightly to 34 percent, suggesting that people are becoming more engaged, but very slowly.

Even with the US stats looking a lot better than worldwide stats, that’s an incredibly low amount. However, if you were to ask many managers, they’d probably report a much higher number because they have employees who show up, go a great job, and go home. This isn’t active engagement.

In fact, those employees fall into the disengaged category, which is where the majority of workers are. According to the 2018 report, a whopping 53 percent of workers are labeled disengaged. This means that they show up to work and get their check but they aren’t emotionally connected to their work.

This makes a great deal of sense because, let’s face it, most people do not like to work, especially in roles that are dead ends or are just meant to pay the bills. It’s probably very hard to motivate them to care more unless they get a raise, which will only help them care more for a small amount of time.

The rest of the people, the last 13 percent, are actively disengaged. This is where the problems come. Active disengagement is when a person becomes toxic and doesn’t care at all about their job or their company. We’ve all met these people or even have been them ourselves (looking at you, retail job I had in high school).

So those are the cold, hard facts of it all. Most employees are disengaged – they come to work and generally perform well, but they aren’t personally or emotionally connected to their role. Then you have a good bit of actually engaged workers, 32-34 percent, who are fully engaged. And, of course, you have actively disengaged coming in at 13 percent.

With all that said, is there a way to actually move people from one group to another?

The Truth About Employee Engagement: It’s Personal

Despite the almost constant stream of blogs and books about employee engagement, the fact of it all is that engagement is a personal thing. You have to fully understand your employees in order to make workplace changes that actually move the needle when it comes to engagement.

truth about employee engagement

For example, say you hire someone with a marketing background for a admin-type role. They may do this job really well, show up to work on time, actively speak their mind in meetings, and things of that nature. However, do they really enjoy their job? Or, do they really miss the creative side of marketing?

I’d guess the latter. In fact, if a great marketing job came around, they very well might leave their current organization to perform that role because that’s what gives them fulfillment.

That last word is vital: fulfillment.

“In today’s workplace, the new standard for employee engagement is fulfillment, according to an analysis from PwC. The company described fulfillment as a feeling people have when their work and motivations are aligned and they gain a sense of meaning and purpose as result,” reports HR Drive in late 2018.

“PwC cited the development of neuroscience and positive psychology as catalysts for the shift toward fulfillment, and artificial intelligence and automation as the tools for accelerating it.”

This is a new way of thinking about employee engagement even though it’s the most logical starting point.

For far too long, employee engagement strategies have been focused on offering benefits instead of looking at fulfillment. For example, remember when people were putting ping pong tables and bars in their offices? How is that supposed to make someone more engaged? It just makes people more comfortable in their current engagement level.

The actively engaged will look at these things and use them to bond with their coworkers. The disengaged will like the distraction. And the actively disengaged will use them as a tool to just waste time on the clock.

But, if you look at what every employee wants out of work and what will make them fulfilled, you’ll start to instantly see what changes you can make. With our marketing person example above, if a marketing project comes along, involve them. Get their input, help them develop those skills. They’ll instantly be more engaged with the company because the company is more engaged with them.

truth about employee engagement

The truth about employee engagement is a simple one: look for ways to personally improve people’s lives. If they feel like they’re just treading water at your organization, they will likely turnover eventually. If you foster the skills they want to personally develop and allow them to work with teams that they want to work with, you’ll see that engagement doesn’t have to be a mystery.

The Truth About Employee Engagement: The Takeaways

The takeaways here are that most employees are not engaged. In order to move them up a peg, you need to learn what makes them tick, what they want out of their careers, what projects they’d excel at, and things like that.

Once this open and honest assessment is complete, you can work with people individually to help them on their career journey. This will allow them to develop and take on new and more exciting tasks that they may come to enjoy.

There is no silver bullet solution to employee engagement. Everyone is different and is on a different path.

The truth about employee engagement is, at it’s heart, that employees are engaged by different things based on the individual employee. Using surveys, interviews, and other means of data collecting should focus on these topics to create individual plans that foster what the employee needs to feel fulfilled in their role.

Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

In need of outplacement assistance?

At Careerminds, we care about people first. That’s why we offer personalized talent management solutions for every level at lower costs, globally.

Speak with an Expert

Log In Contact Us