Amen and thank you…yesterday the bloggers at Commscrum posted a piece on how it was time to retire the term Employee Engagement: Time to say good night to Employee Engagement. I nearly fell on my knees weeping with gratitude. Cause you know what I am soooooo over the concept of employee engagement. Really over it.  I urge you to read  the post, the comments are as insightful as the original post and it draws attention to critical issues for communications professionals.  I agree that it is time to retire the term, and indeed the focus on employee engagement, but my reasoning is a little different.  Let me explain:

1) Function follows form

You don’t need a program to improve employee engagement; you need a program to improve management skills and capability. Employee engagement is an outcome of good management. Simple. It is more time, cost and results efficient to intervene with a small group of people (managers), than on a large group (employees).

2) Get it right in the first place

If you have your strategy, structure and pricing models right, then you don’t need your employees to be expending ‘discretionary effort’. If you need ‘discretionary effort’ then you are doing something wrong. If an employee wants to go the extra mile, that’s fab, but you shouldn’t be depending on it.

3) Treat the cause not the symptom

Increasing employee engagement does not help a disengaged workforce. Workers who are disengaged require performance management. They may be disengaged for a number of reasons (perception of injustice, boredom in role, unmotivated by career path). Treat the cause not the symptom.

4) Beware the wrath of a highly engaged workforce scorned

When you have encouraged your workforce to be highly engaged you have raised their expectations of treatment, involvement and results. A small disappointment in a highly engaged workforce snowballs into a major organisational injustice and you are left with a cynical workforce.

As Mike Klein has made the point, the original intent of Employee Engagement was not manipulative. And I get that, I do. But my sense is that we have moved far away from that initial intent. I think retiring the term would be wise, and resurrecting good management, and strong internal communication.  You never know, you could just end up with employees who enjoy their jobs, talk about it to others, and even work a little bit harder than the norm….

Dr Jen Frahm – Author of Conversations of Change: A guide to implementing workplace change.


  1. Mike Klein says:

    Thank you so much for a fantastic response–your eloquence on this subject is simply breathtaking.

    As for new terminology: “employee engagement”=”workforce manipulation”? Certainly something to think about. 🙂

    Best from Brussels,

    Mike Klein, The Intersection

  2. Mike, thanks for the reply and for the compliment – yes, I’m quite sure that most of the organisations who initiate the employee engagement programs wouldn’t think that they are being manipulative. I’m also quite sure that they don’t often think about it. Which is why I was delighted to see your post and more than happy to throw my two cents worth into the ring!

  3. Fantastic discussion. From my perspective, I don’t care what we call it. What I care most about are the actions discussed in this post. Whatever kind of listening we do (and we need to do more listening inside organizations today)…what’s critical is what we do with what we hear and how we do it. I too often see the “shiny object syndrome,” when we latch on to terms, concepts, etc. without thinking about the outcome. Social media on the inside falls into that category, too. But that’s a whole other issue!

  4. Thanks David for dropping by. I agree wholeheartedly – action is what is required. The only caveat I would make is the language (names) we use may actually create a barrier to action. But, yes, listening is very underrated, let’s make that the Shiny New Object hey?

  5. AmandaBC says:

    Amen to all that!

    I know I’ve been out of the everyday practice of communication for a while, but when did Employee Engagement make the leap from indicator to outcome? EE can, surely, only ever be a mere indicator of just some of the multifarious aspects of organisational performance – when did it become an end in itself? Has “measurement” overtaken the actual business driver?

    This has just started me on another train of thought: why do we communicators have to work so hard to quantify our ROI for our organisations? Nobody ever asks Accounts Receivable to justify their budgets in terms of ROI – they’re just part of what’s required to run a business. I demand that we be left alone to do our jobs in the same way Accounts does! 😉

  6. Indicator to Outcome? Aha! That’s where the good ship Employee Engagement hit the rocks…

    Engagement is a process. A reciprocal process, reflecting an exchange of honest communication, actions and accountability.

    But then it morphed into an Indicator? A what? How can a process be an indicator?

    Aahh, they manufactured an indicator around how people say they feel about the process.

    Hmm…such a nice indicator, we’ll make it into an outcome–the nice happy feeling we’ll call “Employee Engagement”.

    So that’s where an honest exchange became a quest to gin up a kind of warm fuzzy feeling.

    Or did I miss something?

  7. Sharen says:

    Good piece, very much in keeping with the program being implemented by Minister Shorten and DEEWR in relation to antiquated management practices being applied to a 21st century workforce. Although I’m not sure I agree entirely with the concept of performance management being applied to disengaged employees, it’s almost the equivalent of blaming the victim rather than assisting them.

    • mm Jen says:

      Thanks Sharen — would love to hear more about what Minister Shorten and DEEWR are doing. Yes, I take your point with regards to my comment about performance management as blaming the victim. I don’t quite see it as such, because I don’t define an engaged employee as going the extra mile. Some-one who is engaged in their work, shows up and does what they were engaged to do. Disengagement to me has little to do attachment to the organisation, not putting in extra work, or good morale. To me a disengaged worker is one who is not doing what they were employed to do and not particularly concerned about this and that’s where I see a role for performance management. Its why I find the whole “employee engagement” fixation quite frustrating…

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