Employee Engagement Gains Are Tenuous

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Aug 20, 2010

An “engaged” employee knows what to do and wants to do it, according to Sibson Consulting, an HR consultancy that has conducted a Rewards of Work Study since 1997, to explore what attracts, motivates and retains the U.S. workforce.

By this definition, just over half of employees (52 percent) were engaged in 2009 compared to less than half (47 percent) in 2006, according to responses from the nearly 2,000 U.S. workers who were included in Sibson’s 2009 study, released Aug. 12, 2010.

By contrast, more than a quarter of respondents (27 percent) were “disengaged” in 2009 (meaning they don’t know what to do and don’t want to do it), a figure that is unchanged from 2006. Similarly, the percentage of respondents defined by Sibson as “enthusiasts” (those that want to do the work but don’t know what to do) remained unchanged at 4 percent.

Yet the number of “renegades” (those who know what to do but do not want to do it) had declined from 22 percent in 2006 to 17 percent in 2009.

“Employers face a dual challenge,” the report noted, “to help enthusiasts understand the organization’s vision and to motivate renegades to increase their commitment to the organization.”

Different Research, Different Results

A survey of 62,000 employees collected in the first quarter of 2010 by Quantum Workplace, an employer ratings agency, revealed that the overall engagement index calculated by the company had increased to 87.7, up from the previous two years. The survey captured employee perceptions of senior leadership, team effectiveness, fair compensation and manager effectiveness.

“This is the first sign we’ve seen that the impact of the recession on employee engagement may be easing,” said Gregory Harris, president of Quantum Workplace, in a statement issued April 22, 2010.

But this doesn’t mean that employers can relax.

According to a July 29, 2010, announcement by the HR consultancy Hewitt Associates, almost half (46 percent) of 900 organizations around the world that conduct annual engagement studies saw a significant drop in employee engagement levels at the end of the June 2010 quarter—the largest decline Hewitt has observed since it began conducting employee engagement research in 1995.

This highlights the growing tension between employees and employers struggling to stabilize their financial situation. Employees are showing fatigue in response to a lengthy period of stress, uncertainty and confusion brought about by the recession and their company's actions, Hewitt noted.

However, nearly a third (30 percent) of respondents saw an improvement in engagement levels.

Another study, though, found that more than one in four employees (27 percent) said their job satisfaction—a different, yet notable measure—had worsened in the second quarter of 2010 compared to the second quarter of 2009, according to the Glassdoor.com Employment Confidence Survey of 2,418 U.S. adults conducted on its behalf by Harris Interactive.

Glassdoor.com is an online community where employees, job seekers, employers and recruiters can see unedited opinions about a company's work environment.

Employer Action Needed

Though research and results vary, spokespeople from various consultancies agree that employers must take action to rebuild employee loyalty and enthusiasm.

“Many are still recovering from the effects and turmoil felt and witnessed at companies and in the job market over the past two years,” said Rusty Rueff, Glassdoor.com career and workplace expert, in a recent statement. “How employers behave and communicate now will certainly influence future satisfaction and impact retention as the economy recovers.”

“The companies we study who have the highest levels of engagement aren’t taking anything for granted right now,” Quantum’s Harris said. “They’re continuing to invest in their employees, and our data indicates they’ll be in a better position to make their way out of this recession than companies with disengaged workforces. These companies are winning because they’ve built an engaging culture.”

“Employers need to provide strong leadership in strengthening employee engagement,” said David Insler, senior vice president at Sibson Consulting, and one of the authors of the Rewards of Work Study, in a statement. “They can do this through clear leadership direction, improved communications, support and feedback to employees, setting a high performance bar and rewarding top performers accordingly.”

"The economic situation over the past two years has clearly strained the connection between employers and employees, and the stress continues to increase," said Ted Marusarz, leader of global engagement and culture at Hewitt. "Organizations are struggling to improve employee engagement, but they need to stay focused. The extra effort companies put forth now will make a difference in how successful they are at boosting employee morale and retaining top talent as the economy stabilizes and employee opportunities open up."

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is online editor/manager for SHRM.

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