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The Management Moment

Employee Engagement

Fernandez, Claudia Plaisted DrPH, RD, LDN

Editor(s): Baker, Edward L.

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Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: September 2007 - Volume 13 - Issue 5 - p 524-526
doi: 10.1097/01.PHH.0000285207.63835.50
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It is every manager's dream to lead a team of highly engaged workers. High engagement means higher productivity. It means higher morale. It means mission critical becomes mission accomplished. Just how engaged does the workforce of this new millennium look? And more important, what can a public health manager do to help employees become more engaged and more successful at work?

In 2003, one of the largest management and human resource consulting and administration firms, Towers Perrin, conducted a study of workforce engagement.1 Querying 40 000 workers, they found that American and Canadian workers share a very strong work ethic. Fully 78 percent of these workers say that they are personally motivated to help their company succeed and are willing to put in the extra effort required to make that happen. Seventy-seven percent stated that they really care about the future of their company and 70 percent said that they are proud to work there. Most (61%) felt their company is a good place to work. So the research showed that workers feel the “good will” of their companies. This “good will” matters because research shows that it is the foundation for true engagement, and engagement is strongly related to higher performance and productivity. The fact that productivity matters underscores the reality that people matter.

Are you thinking, “I know my employees are all satisfied in their jobs!”? Think again. Employee satisfaction is not the same as employee engagement. According to the 2005 Walker Loyalty Report,2 satisfied employees pay only lip service to their company commitment. While a whopping 80 percent report that they like the duties and activities that make up their jobs, the report shows that they may jump ship tomorrow for a job with slightly more pay or a better benefits package. The Walker Loyalty Report classifies workers into four categories: loyal—who have a personal attachment to your organization; accessible—who go the extra mile but intend to leave; trapped—who want to move on but feel they cannot; and high risk—who are ready to go. Nearly 60 percent of the surveyed workforce fell into the latter two categories. Truly loyal employees are priceless: 95 percent said they go “above and beyond” the call of duty, while just 62 percent of those lacking loyalty do the same.

Since managers cannot rely on employee satisfaction to help retain the best and the brightest, employee engagement becomes a critical concept. The Towers Perrin report found that 17 percent of employees are “highly engaged,” the bulk of employees (64%) are moderately engaged, and 19 percent are disengaged. The fact that nearly one of five employees may be “marking time” should concern any manager. Not surprisingly, nonprofit sector employees are far more engaged than their industry peers—42 percent fell into the highly engaged category. How do these folks maintain this level of commitment? It appears to reflect their personal sense of mission and passion. The take home message: a personal connection to work is fundamental to building employee engagement.

So, how do you manage people to promote engagement? The challenge at the low end of the engagement spectrum is to identify these disengaged folks and determine how to reengage them. Disengaged employees feel their contributions are being overlooked, they concentrate on tasks rather than on outcomes, and they want to be told what to do. They do not have productive relationships with their managers or with their coworkers. According to The Leadership Advantage, “Managers who only provide tasks to an employee reinforce not-engaged behaviors and actually move 180 degrees away from engaging the heart, mind, and soul of that person.”3

People become disenchanted at work for many reasons, often interpersonal ones or for reasons related to organizational culture. Building good relationships with these employees is essential, as is regularly communicating expectations, clarification, and measurement. Reframe the position from that of completing tasks to that of achieving goals and outcomes. Good questions to ask of such employees include “What are the outcomes you are supposed to achieve? What were you hired to do? How do you contribute to making this a great place to work?”3 Focus your disengaged employees on outcomes as well as the steps it takes to get there. Using measurement is crucial to an employee's feeling of success, as long as what you are measuring is outcome oriented.

Managers would do well to nurture engaged employees, since these workers produce more and contribute to good working environments in which people are productive, ethical, and accountable. In the corporate world they make more money for the company and create emotional engagement and loyal customers. They stay with the organization longer and are more committed to quality and growth than are not-engaged and actively disengaged workers. Engaged employees do all this through their relationships with others. They tend to have strong relationships with managers as well as clear communications with them, are focused on a clear path on the basis of their strengths, and enjoy strong relationships with their coworkers. These relationships create the foundation for them to take risks and stretch for excellence. Do not leave these excellent employees alone. For best results, spend most of your time with the most productive and talented people because they have the most potential.3

Of course, the big question is how to move that 64 percent in the middle up to the highly engaged status—and how to keep them there. The risk is that they will slide down toward the disengaged group, and that could severely affect your organization's performance. The vast majority of employees are just waiting for management to take the right steps to make them fully engaged. When employees move from moderate to high engagement, they are almost twice as likely to want to stay with their job and give the extra effort required to get the job done, and done well.

The flip side of employee engagement and retention is turnover, that financially crushing cost center that plagues many an organization. Turnover is expensive, slows productivity while new employees “learn the job,” and costs you organizational memory. Engagement and turnover have a strong relationship: the Towers Perrin study showed that only 6 percent of the highly engaged are out hunting for their “dream job,” but 11 percent of the moderately and a whopping 29 percent of the disengaged are job-hunting. While it might, at first, seem OK to have the disengaged jump ship, they are generally far more costly to replace than they are to motivate. And, don't forget: some of those disengaged job seekers could be in key areas in your organization.

So, what is it that attracts, and then engages, good employees? Your first thought might be “money,” but that is only part of the story. According to the Walker Loyalty Report, the factors that attract, retain, and engage employees can be divided into four categories: (1) Pay, (2) Benefits, (3) Learning and Development, and (4) Work Environment.2 When it comes to attracting employees to your organization in the first place, benefits, pay, and “work-life balance” are the important factors. Learning and Development plays a lesser role, with “career advancement opportunities” coming farther down the list of important factors for workers surveyed.

When it comes to keeping those employees (employee retention), surprisingly neither Pay nor Benefits makes it to the top five factors chosen. The category of Learning and Development looms large when it comes to retention, with “career advancement opportunities,” “retention of high-caliber people,” and “development of the employee's skills” ranking high on the list. Work environment plays a strong role, with “overall work environment” and “resources to get the job done” both ranking in the top five of important factors.

With regard to employee engagement, Pay and Benefits do not even make the top ten! All the factors fall into the categories of Work Environment and Learning and Development. The most important factor for employee engagement is “senior management's interest in the employee's well being,” followed by “having challenging work,” “decision-making authority,” “customer orientation,” “career advancement opportunities,” “company reputation,” “collaboration with coworkers,” “resources to get the job done,” “input into decision making,” and lastly “senior management vision.”

So, while pay and benefits are key to recruiting people, they actually play a far lesser role in retaining and truly engaging employees. That is good news to the typical public health manager! In public health we usually cannot reward our employees financially as well as we could in the private sector. However, managers can do several things to get the other aspects of the workplace right: providing development opportunities, good supervision, effective performance management and communication, and clarity about how employees contribute to results. If you want to keep workers around, use this as a checklist of things to work on in your own management style and organizational culture development.


1. Working today: understanding what drives employee engagement.;; Published 2003. Accessed May 9, 2007.
2. Walker Loyalty Report, November 2005. Published 2005. Accessed May 9, 2007.
3. The Leadership Advantage. The power of employee engagement. Published 2001. Accessed May 9, 2007.
© 2007 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.