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Employment relations and employee engagement
Employment relations and employee engagement

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1.1 A critical review of employee engagement

This course offers a critical review of employee engagement within the broader context of employment relations. This is particularly important given the attention and significance attributed to employee engagement in discussions of HRM and business success more broadly. For example in the UK, the MacLeod Commission Report (2009) has now become part of the Engage for Success [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] movement. In the organisation’s own words:

Engage for Success is a movement committed to the idea that there is a better way to work, a better way to enable personal growth, organisational growth and ultimately growth for Britain by releasing more of the capability and potential of people at work.

The MacLeod Commission involved government, academics and organisations working together to set an agenda for employment relations within UK firms. As Truss et al. (2014, p. 1) note, this is a potentially powerful coalition which can exert a strong influence within the UK regarding ‘best practice’ management and HRM.

The first stage of our critical review is an interrogation of the concept of ‘employee engagement’ itself. Given its prominence we might assume that engagement must be well understood. For example, ‘Engage for Success’ presents it as a ‘workplace approach’:

…designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being.

However, there is some dispute about the origins of the word ‘engagement’. Schaufeli (2014, p. 18) suggests the word originates in a Gallup poll of workplace environments from the 1990s, while Kahn’s (1990) article ‘The psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work’ is also often cited as an original source. Kahn’s (1990) work is premised on the notion that the individual has a ‘true self’ which they can manage and decide to involve or withhold during work-related activities:

I defined personal engagement as the harnessing of organisation members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances. I defined personal disengagement as the uncoupling of selves from work roles; in disengagement, people withdraw and defend themselves physically, cognitively, or emotionally during role performances.

(Kahn, 1990, p. 694)

This conception relies on a particular psychological conceptualisation of identity and on ascribing agency to the individual concerned. That is to say, it is the individual who decides whether they are going to engage with or disengage from their work. Both these assumptions have been challenged considerably in the academic literature (Truss et al., 2014) and prompted much debate in the field.

It has been argued for example that literature on the subject mostly presents engagement as a ‘win-win’ situation without acknowledging the impact on employees (Jenkins and Delbridge, 2013). Some researchers go further and have criticised the managerialist orientation within engagement literature for ignoring the ‘dark side’ of engagement for employees, that is, the negative impact for employees when management seek to increase discretionary effort to improve performance (George, 2011).

Another critique of the concept of engagement is that the influences of internal and external organisational contexts for engagement are largely underdeveloped. Specifically, it remains to be assessed how engagement initiatives relate to the current global economic and political climate of adversity and cost control (Truss et al., 2013). Against this backdrop, Thompson (2011) argues that management are faced with a series of ‘disconnections’ related to wider economy which means that they cannot always deliver positive benefits to employees. According to Kaufmann (2010, pp. 304-5):

In the real world of competitive business the only metric of ‘best practice’ and ‘high performance’ that has long-run survival value is ‘most profits’. The implication is that the notion of employee engagement is management-centric, underestimates potential conflicts of interest and may be methodologically fraught with mis-specification.