3 Reasons Why Employee Engagement is a Scam

by cv harquail on May 10, 2010

We should all maintain a hearty skepticism about employee engagement.

While it is true that engaged employees contribute more and more willingly to an organization, the contributions of the employee are rarely if ever matched by compensation from the organization.

201005101542.jpgLast week I had a long talk with a mid-level executive about the rollout of a new employee engagement program in his organization.

(You know it’s gonna be bad when the words “rollout” and “program” appear together. “Rollout” alone is a dead giveaway.)

He told me that he was reluctant to throw his own enthusiasm behind the program, because he wasn’t sure if it was fair to ask the people who work with him to give any more than they were already giving. He just couldn’t get engaged in the engagement program.

This executive isn’t lazy, or lacking in ambition, or afraid of the challenge of employee engagement. He believes that, more often than not, employee engagement is usually a scam.

And he’s right. Employee engagement is a scam.

Defining Employee Engagement

Consider what employee engagement is — Employee engagement is the willingness and ability of employees to contribute to company success, through discretionary effort at work, in the form of extra time, brainpower and energy (Towers Perrin).  “Discretionary effort” is work you’re not obligated to do, because you aren’t paid for doing it.  Engagement is about doing more work than is required, with more enthusiasm, so that the organization achieves its goals.

Employee engagement sounds appealing, when you look at engagement from the organization’s perspective.

If you step away from management’s perspective, though, and look at what’s being asked of employees in many programs, you can see these three reasons why employee engagement is a scam:

1. Employee Engagement Focuses on the “Employee”, not the Person.

Employee engagement programs are designed to make you a more engaged “employee”. They are all about linking your energy, your sense of purpose, and your effort to your role within the organization.

Employee engagement programs are seldom initiated or designed to help you be a better person. What gets developed and directed are the talents, interests and energies that can contribute to the organization, not necessarily the ones that can contribute to your life as a partner, parent, community member, soccer player, or plain ‘ole person.

2. Employee Engagement is about “More Take, Less Give” by the organization.

Organizations want engaged employees for one simple reason: Engaged employees contribute more towards the company’s goals than do less engaged employees.

However, these additional contributions to the organization aren’t matched by commensurate contributions from the organization. Have you heard about the companion program to Employee Engagement, called Organizational Investment?

No? Why not? Oh, right, these programs don’t exist.

Sure, employees can get an ephemeral boost from the flow experience of being engaged at work, they can experience the camaraderie of working with others to surmount challenges, and they can have a sense of pride as they reflect on their role in the organization’s accomplishment. But are those benefits big enough, or substantial enough, to make all the extra discretionary effort worth it for the employee?

3. With Employee Engagement, what you give you can’t take with you.

You know all those contributions you’ve made as an engaged employee? Where do they get you, the employee?

Some employee engagement advocates will argue that employees who are more engaged will move more quickly up the management hierarchy– which is fine if your goal is to move up in that organization. But what if you don’t want a higher level position?

More important, what if you want to leave the organization? What part of all that discretionary effort that you put in has created something you can take with you?

The concern that ‘you can’t take it with you’ is all the more important when you recognize how many different organizations the average person will work for over their lifetime. Consider that, at the younger end of baby boomers, the average person has already worked for over 11 employers— and they’re still 25 yrs from retirement!

"I've decided to leave the company. Could I have my soul back?" at The New Yorker Store_1273513734644Does it really make sense to put that much uncompensated, discretionary effort towards your employer’s success, when you’ll likely change employers many times over your career? Is this still true when you recognize that few of the benefits of that engagement accrue to you and are transportable?

Engagement, in the forms of enthusiasm, faith, commitment, creativity and emotional energy, is an investment in the organization and its work that the individual can never quite recoup.   In the end it’s all about them, the organization, and not about you, the person. You are a means to an end, and increasing your engagement is just another way to maximize profit at the employees’ expense.

If that’s not a scam, what is?

See Also:

Wally Bock’s post, Why Engagement May be the Best Management Voodoo Ever, at Three Star Leadership

[Apologies in advance to my esteemed colleague David Zinger of the Employee Engagement Network, where he and his colleagues work to even things out for employees. ]

Image: one way from vistavision
Cartoon by
by Mick Stevens. Published in The New Yorker 5/3/2010.  “I’ve decided to leave the company. Could I have my soul back?” Available at TheNewYorkerStore.