HR’s role in employee engagement

Time to focus on the real drivers

We recently explored employee engagement at a joint session of the Henley Partnership and the Henley Centre for HR Excellence. Employee engagement has become a sacred cow of HR, one of the things HR does to help the business. The danger is it’s become a ‘solution looking for a problem’, something we do because it’s what HR does.

A lot of the evidence suggests that there is a correlation between employee engagement and business performance, but research[1] suggests that engagement doesn't drive business performance, rather business performance drives engagement; people are proud to work for a successful business and a successful business provides greater job stability, career opportunities, funding for development etc.

Research findings

At the meeting, we didn't argue that HR should stop working on employee engagement, but we should challenge why and how we do it. HR’s role is to enhance business performance, so we should focus on where the data show employee engagement drives higher individual and organisational performance. Our own research suggests that carrying out expensive and time-consuming employee engagement surveys is a ‘spray and pray’ approach that produces meaningless data at too high a level, which most organisations fail to action effectively.

We argue that HR should identify those areas of the organisation that are material to overall performance (based on whatever metric is meaningful – financial results, patient safety etc) and where the data suggest employee engagement drives this performance and focus its efforts there. These focus areas should be derived from strategic workforce planning (SWP) approaches, not just bottom-up, internally-focused surveys.

Driving engagement

We also need to focus on what drives engagement. Our research suggests that there are four things:

  • An individual’s natural level of engagement: some people are simply more engaged than others, so let’s assess this natural engagement when we recruit.
  • Engagement with the organisation: in our work with charities, supranational entities and many public sector organisations, we find that people are engaged with the organisation’s purpose. We would question whether making better widgets really engages people and, therefore, whether increasing shareholder value really engages people.
  • Engagement with the job: some people are engaged with the pleasure of the job itself but, as with organisational engagement, our research found that they were in the minority.
  • Engagement with the manager: our research found that this was the key driver of engagement. As the saying goes, people leave their manager not their job.

Other recent HR Centre research indicates that talent have become consumers, and their relationship with one organisation is likely to be more transitory and, while they are there, discretionary. With this in mind, the line manager becomes the pivotal force in translating what the organisation can offer to what the individual has and needs.


This brings us back to our title: what does this mean for HR?

We should focus less on creating massive business-wide surveys and more on working with key managers to help them engage their employees. And we should focus on where this will make a material difference to performance.

If these key managers are doing it well but not doing it our way, let them get on with it. If they aren't engaging their employees, understand why:

  • If it’s due to a lack of competence, provide real-time coaching (perhaps from their peers who are doing it well) to help them do it better.
  • If they lack the confidence, sit with them and help them understand the barriers and how to overcome them.
  • If it’s a lack of commitment, understand why and challenge them to recognise that this is a core part of their job. Ultimately this might mean that they will never be engaging managers.
  • If their technical skills or customer relationships are still critical to the organisation, provide career opportunities that are not dependent on them managing people; if not, then perhaps they shouldn't be managers at all.


So what’s the overall message? Engagement happens at a manager level so we need to get out of our offices and spend time in the business understanding where to focus our efforts and working with key managers, rather than designing yet another meaningless organisational initiative.

Henley's Advanced HR Business Partner Programme helps you to understand how HR is, and could, support and enhance the business imperatives of your organisation.

[1] Schneider, B, Hanges, P J, Smith, D B & Salvaggio, A N (2003) Which comes first: employee attitudes or organizational financial and market performance? Journal of Applied Psychology, 88 (5), 836 – 851


Nick Holley

Programme Director, Advanced HR Business Parter Programme

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