What exactly is employee engagement?

Employee engagement has been a hot business topic for many years. There is a pile of research that tells us:

  • Engaged employees are more productive.

  • There are too many disengaged employees.

  • Employee disengagement costs companies billions of dollars per year.

There's just one glaring problem: nobody agrees on what employee engagement actually means. 

This is a critical challenge. It's hard to improve something you can't define. Companies launch annual surveys without clarity about what’s being measured. Executive buy-in is often lukewarm, because the idea of engagement sounds good, but nobody’s really sure how it directly impacts the bottom line.

This post provides you with a clear definition along with some examples.

Notebook with the words “employee engagement” written on the front.

The Definition of Employee Engagement

Here's what it means to be engaged at work:

An engaged employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success.

Unpack that a bit and you'll see there are three things that need to happen if you want to engage your employees.

  1. Organizational success needs to be clearly defined.

  2. The employee needs to understand that definition.

  3. The employee needs to know how they can contribute.

Engaging employees requires organizations to have a single, clear definition of success, such as a customer service vision. Without this definition, it’s impossible for employees to be engaged no matter how enthusiastic or committed they might be.

There are a few factors that often correlate with engaged employees, but are not part of the definition:

  • Job satisfaction: How much do employees like their jobs?

  • Employee experience: What is it like to be an employee?

  • Emotional connection: Do employees feel proud of the organization?

It’s possible for an employee to feel very satisfied with their job, have a good employee experience, and feel proud of their company without being engaged. Here’s how:

  • There’s no clear definition of organizational success for the employee to work towards.

  • The employee isn’t aware of how the organization defines success.

  • The employee is aware of an over-arching goal, but isn’t sure how they contribute.

My very first job was like this. I worked for a retail clothing store in high school. I really liked my job, generally had a positive experience, and was proud to tell my friends where I worked. However, I had no idea how my store was doing, what the company strategy was, or how the company defined great customer service. So despite my enthusiasm for the job, it was impossible for me to ever be engaged.

It’s also possible for an employee to be unhappy in their job, yet be fully engaged. While this is usually unsustainable, there are times when all of us are tired and a little unhappy, but we work hard to overcome a big challenge because we’re still committed to making a positive contribution.

What are examples of employee engagement?

Companies with a highly engaged workforce make an effort to ensure every employee understands the big picture and how they contribute. People come to work each day with a purpose and feel they are empowered to make a difference.

One of my favorite examples of a company with engaged employees is the sporting goods retailer, REI. The company defines success through its mission statement: We inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

Here's how that looked on a recent visit my wife and I made to our local REI store. 

We wanted to buy a large tent so we could take our dog camping. The associates who helped us were clearly in-tune with REI's mission:

  • They were passionate about the outdoors (inspire)

  • They gave us great tips on camping with our dog (educate)

  • and they helped us select the right gear (outfit)

The best part was the associates weren't reading from a product manual or just following a script they learned in training. They were avid campers who relied on their own experience to enthusiastically try to help us enjoy our upcoming camping trip.

Another favorite example comes from In-N-Out Burger. The chain has attained a cult-like following for its tasty food, simplified menu, and incredible consistency.

In-N-Out defines success for its employees through three simple words: quality, service, and cleanliness. You'll see all three in action any time you visit one of the restaurants.

  • Quality is evident in fresh ingredients and careful preparation.

  • Service is consistently delivered with a smile and upbeat attitude.

  • Cleanliness is constantly a priority, even when its busy.

(Fun fact: McDonald's once used those same three words to define success. Here's the rest of that story.)

Finally, here’s one more example from the USS Midway Museum in San Diego. In a city that's built for tourism, the Midway is the top-rated tourist attraction in town!

The Midway is a retired U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. The museum uses its mission to define success for employees and volunteers: Preserve the historic USS Midway and the legacy of those who serve; Inspire and Educate future generations; and Entertain our museum guests.

People work and volunteer at the Midway because they care deeply about the ship, its history, and the armed forces in general. They are passionate about sharing the Midway's history and helping people understand what it was like to serve onboard. 

Whether it's a local with a membership, a visitor from out of town, or a group of school kids on a field trip, Midway employees consistently go out of their way to ensure visitors have a fun and educational experience. (You can read more about the Midway’s service culture here.)

Employee engagement resources

The starting point for any employee engagement initiative is to agree on what “employee engagement” means. I hope you'll use mine, but it's okay if you have another definition. What matters is that everyone in your organization agrees on what employee engagement means.

Once you clear that hurdle, here are some additional resources to help you:

You can also learn more from The Service Culture Handbook, which is a step-by-step guide to getting your employees obsessed with customer service.