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Dec 1, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion around the topic of workplace engagement.

Most notably, an expose of Amazon in The New York Times highlighted how some organizations use HR technology to penalize, rather than engage, employees.

The concept of “engagement” has become a relatively popular term, as employers are recognizing that Generations X and Y (and soon Gen Z) are motivated differently than previous generations.

The initial association most people have with employee engagement is that it is the same thing as employee satisfaction. In reality, that may not always be the case — just because an employee is happy or satisfied with their position does not mean that they are giving employers the discretionary effort of someone who is passionately pursuing something that they find intrinsically meaningful and rewarding. Nor does it mean that their skills and gifts have been appropriately aligned with the tasks needed to reach overall organizations goals.

Defining engagement

John Gibbons defines engagement as “a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his or her work.”

Christopher Thomas provides a similar explanation, describing it as “a state of aroused, situation specific motivation that is correlated with both attitudinal and behavioral outcomes.”

And, of course, there are the contributions of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term “flow” – essentially describing what happens to people when they are “in the zone” and completely involved in an activity for its own sake.

Others associate employee engagement with how much people care — how passionate they are about what they do. In fact, often people’s “strengths” are not associated with what they are “good at” – rather their true strengths are more a reflection of what they absolutely love to do. Admittedly, true engagement is reflected in a wide variety of behaviors and outcomes – some of which can be quantified (and others which are more difficult to measure).

In addition to some of the anecdotal evidence of engagement, there are also certain data points that organizations should have access to that can provide an with a relatively good understanding of the engagement of its people, both at the individual and organizational levels. And, in fact, many of these data sets are likely tracked and collected in various human capital systems.

Other data that points to increased engagement

For instance, most organizations have automated the collection of time and attendance data, so simply looking at things like the number of unexcused absences or how often people are late can be a good starting point.

Excessive amounts of overtime (tracked in payroll systems) can also be a precursor to burn out and eventual departure. And scheduling systems will alert to anyone who is not compliant with schedule requirements (such as needing to work at least one weekend a month).

Learning management systems also provide visibility into any training and development that has been assigned to people. Did they complete the training, demonstrate command of the material (through some form of assessment) and did they do it during the time frame requested?

Also, think about other data sets. How often do employees refer people to recruiters for open positions? Are they participating in wellness programs and other company initiatives? Active involvement in these things should be evaluated when looking for proof of engagement.

One obvious data point is the performance evaluation tools that most organizations use to track and measure the performance of individuals within the organization. Low ratings or several years of mediocre scores may be indicative of low engagement.

Are they also recognizing their peers?

Most of these tools include a “self-evaluation” component, and when the individual’s self-evaluation is vastly different than their manager’s, that can be a pretty clear signal that expectations are not being met. Many organizations are also making peer recognition available to their people, many through web-based tools that make them easy to access and use.

People who are engaged will make it a point to recognize their peers.

There are some larger company-wide metrics that will provide organizations with an overall understanding of organizational health. Turnover tends to be a very tangible measure of how well things are going across the board.

One item to note: Many organizations focus almost exclusively on voluntary turnover (i.e. those individuals who they were not expecting to leave) versus involuntary turnover (those individuals who are actively “managed out” due to poor performance or other issues). What these organizations fail to recognize is that the avoidance of involuntary turnover actually starts with the recruiting process.

Taking the time to fully understand a candidate’s cultural fit, skill set, career aspirations, personality traits and strengths, weaknesses and then matching them to the perfect position in an organization will help to avoid problems later on down the road.

The retention-onboarding connection

Problems with engagement tend to initially be revealed when first year retention rates decline. The inability to keep your newest employees may also highlight the need to address onboarding and orientation programs.

Many organizations put a lot of structure and involvement in a new employee’s first few weeks of employment, investing in a significant amount of education and training to get them up to speed quickly. But a few months later these same employees are seemingly abandoned, with no additional follow up to ask questions like “How is the role different than you expected,” or “What can I be doing to help you as you continue to acclimate to our organization?”

Unfortunately, for many organizations, “engagement activities” and similar initiatives tend to begin with significant intensity and fanfare, only to fade away when the day-to-day responsibilities of our roles get in the way.

Rather than adding to the workload of already burned out managers, HR professionals should be collecting data, aggregating and then analyzing it for information that can then be provided to managers to help them better understand who is engaged, who is not  — and, what to do about it.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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