Myth Busting: 3 Things Employee Engagement Predicts (and 2 Things It Doesn’t)

Employee engagement is a topic that has received a lot of attention in the HR world lately. Not only is employee engagement linked to important business outcomes — it’s one of the key focal points of HR policy. But with so much content available that discusses employee engagement, it can be hard to differentiate between what information is true and what information is based on false metrics or inaccurate data. So, how do you truly understand what employee engagement can do for you?

In this article, we will do some myth-busting using the latest industry research to highlight the things that engagement does – and doesn’t – predict.

So, what does employee engagement actually predict?

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Engagement research originated in the early 2000s by the academics who first explored the concept of burnout. At the time, employee burnout was a problematic topic. Knowing when an employee is burned out can be valuable for a company, but it doesn’t provide much value for the employee. What’s more relevant is to spot who might be at risk of burnout and take actions to prevent it.

Burnout is characterized by low energy and productivity, high absence, and a high intention to quit a job. What if we could predict the opposite? What if we could predict which employees will be high energy, productive, present, and unlikely to quit soon?

This is where engagement came in. Engagement was presented to be the opposite of burnout. Where engagement suggests people are vigorous and dedicated, burnout suggests employees are emotionally exhausted and cynical about their workplaces.

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The more engaged your employees are, the more satisfied they are at work. On the contrary, if engagement is low, your turnover rate is likely to be higher, which results in an increase in onboarding costs, hiring costs, and training costs. By observing employee engagement, you can gauge whether your workforce is satisfied with the state of your company.

This is also a great way to gather feedback on what needs to change to make your organization a better place to work. Measuring employee engagement often facilitates feedback on how employees feel day-to-day at your company. Surveys are an opportunity for your staff to offer opinions they might not voice otherwise in a neutral setting under the promise of anonymity, so you can garner genuine feedback on how to improve your company and make life a little better for your employees.

3. Turnover

Engaged employees typically have healthier relationships with their workplaces, which means they are less likely to quit. Not necessarily unlikely, just less likely.

This is called “intention to quit,” or “turnover intention.” This concept is not the same as actually quitting, however, it is highly correlated. Employees with an intention to quit don’t do so unless they have the opportunity, meaning employees less engaged at work will be more likely to talk to a recruiter about securing a new job.

This also means that employee engagement is more important to retain employees with positions that are in high demand. For your average programmer or other high-demand positions, high engagement is a must.

Even more important: what doesn’t employee engagement predict?

There are also a number of factors that employee engagement doesn’t predict. Here are two common misconceptions in the field of human resource management to be aware of.

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1. Employee Happiness

As much as the two are often linked together, employee engagement is not employee happiness, and employee engagement doesn’t predict happiness either. Engaged employees are more likely to be satisfied with their work, which can lead to happiness, but the two are not causations of each other.

To be fully engaged, employees need to have challenging work. Think back to the moments in your career that you’re most proud of. Were they situations where you solved or overcame a difficult challenge? Most of the time, this is the case.

To measure engagement, you can’t draw conclusions on employee happiness because employee happiness is difficult to gauge. Some companies use mood measurement tools to attempt to understand employee happiness, but these tools measure so many elements, it can be hard to drill down to the exact data you need. How do you truly measure an employee’s happiness, mood, or another feeling that you can’t precisely define?

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2. Employee Behavior

When implementing an employee engagement tool, many companies want to see precise results, quantifiable data, and metrics to measure an increase in engagement. Interest in employee engagement has exploded in popularity in recent years, which led to an abundance of engagement survey providers who each give their own spin on how they think engagement should be measured.

This variation and lack of standardization causes inconsistency across the industry. Depending on how you measure engagement and which questions you ask, you will get different answers. This is why it’s more important than ever to avoid measuring employee engagement the wrong way, and to convey to your C-Suite that while employee engagement is measurable, it won’t predict exactly what employees are going to do next.

Before deciding how your company is going to measure employee engagement, research your engagement survey provider to get a better understanding of the primary results of employee engagement. Ask yourself: should my company make a distinction between engagement, employee mood, and happiness, or are you lumping these categories together? Which components of engagement are most important to you?

By researching the right provider and finding a high-quality survey tool, you can get the insights you need to be successful and make high-level decisions about your company. Measuring, tracking, and improving engagement has much potential to improve your business through higher productivity, better service quality, and lower employee turnover — but only when done right.

Erik van Vulpen is the founder of Analytics in HR (AIHR). He is a writer, speaker, and trainer on people analytics. Erik is an instructor for the HR Analytics Academy and has extensive experience in the application of HR analytics.