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.


David Zinger May 10, 2010 at 6:57 pm


I appreciated your article and I am saddened that employee engagement is so often equated with “sucking out more discretionary effort.” I am not disagreeing with you but as you know so well, working with the word authenticity — meaning is in people and not words.

To me: Employee engagement is the art and science of engaging people in authentic and recognized connections to strategy, roles, performance, organization, community, relationship, customers, development, energy, and happiness to leverage, sustain, and transform work into results.

This is not just organizational results, that is too myopic. It is individual results. And if I sound idealistic than so be it. I will hold fast on this idea and believe it is not a scam anymore than authenticity is a scam yet I know organizations and leaders who can scam both of these terms.

I also believe that is unfortunate that engagement has been paired so strongly with “employee” and not work, organization, etc. I think we do scam people if we make it seem like engagement is only attached to their role and not who they are and what they do and how they do it and who they do it with. In addition engagement to be meaningful and authentic is bidirectional so good for the executive who would not throw his enthusiasm or weight behind engagement…of course throwing your weight could be part of the problem, eh. Or believing that enthusiasm is a key variable. I hope the executive engages enthusiasm to challenge the organization…that is engagement is it not.

So employee engagement is a scam and it is not a scam and the word it creates difficulties too.

Of course, you know I am overjoyed at critical responses to engagement. If we don’t have this, and embrace it, and learn from it, we will fad or fade away and engagement is too damn important for too many people and organizations for this to occur.

I firmly believe in employee engagement for all and the entry point may be the role of employee but we can certainly and authentically expand it beyond that.

Thanks CV.

Staying engaged,

.-= David Zinger´s last blog ..A BEST Buy: Employee Engagement and Social Media =-.

cv harquail May 10, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Hi David (Z) –

I was trying explicitly to carve out a space for the EE ‘good guys’ with my apologies to you at the end of the post. ( grin) With EE, I like the link between employee behavior, etc. to strategy, etc. Without that link work can be pretty meaningless (which is fine for some folks but not enough for most).

I’d like to see more about what individuals *do* get out of increasing their engagement. I’m not one to knock the psychological and socio-emotional benefits of engaged work, but I remain concerned that these benefits are not commensurate with what is extracted from the employees.

When we bring up the question of compensation or exchange, it is easy to pump up how great these non-economic elements are, and to forget that someone is making money off your good feelings. When we’re talking about employees, this exchange really matters. [Note, this whole issue is completely different in ideological organizations, but I’ll write a different post about that.]

I like your idea of setting up a conversation about the built-in tensions of Employee Engagement. I am open to the idea that the three tensions I’ve identified here — ‘at work’ vs whole person, unequal exchange, and lasting personal vs. corporate value — can get addressed in an employee-work situation, but I don’t know that they ever get eliminated. But talking about how they can be acknowledged, reduced and addressed is the point, you’re right. cv

David Zinger May 10, 2010 at 7:01 pm

One more point. I am starting to develop some real authentic webinar topics (not just promos to sell a product/service) on engagement for the employee engagement network.

We could have a wonderful debate about this if you are open to it.

Let me know and let’s take this conversation to the next level CV.
.-= David Zinger´s last blog ..A BEST Buy: Employee Engagement and Social Media =-.

Paul Hebert May 10, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Question: Is employee engagement a scam or is employee engagement done incorrectly, duplicitously and manipulatively a scam? ( I know I made up those last two words.)

Companies that connect with their employees on a personal level, create an exchange that they both value get engagement. To say ALL engagement efforts are a scam is akin to saying ALL car salesmen are bad, ALL lawyers are sharks and ALL politicians are crooks (well… that last one may be true.)

Engagement solely for profits sake is a scam. I do agree. But I don’t think painting all engagement efforts with the same negative brush is fair either.
.-= Paul Hebert´s last blog ..What Motivation Looks Like – Real World Example in HRevolution =-.

cv harquail May 10, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Hi Paul,

I did hedge my bets there, well at least I thought I did, to avoid tarring all with same.

I’m torn, though, by the question of whether it is “most/bad EE programs” or “any EE effort” that deserve to be challenged. I do think that some EE programs are done with care, and with respect towards employees. I do believe that there are good organizations, even good ‘for profit’ organizations, where engagement is a concern because the organization wants employees to experience meaningfulness, challenge etc. as ends in themselves.

What it gets down to is that classic conundrum of whether / where / when a money-making enterprise can put employee flourishing at the same level as financial success. Where organizations are willing to do this and committed to do this (e.g., B Corps, LC3s, church-owned hospitals) the EE equation is balanced, or at least the tensions are explicitly managed and with good intent.

It does make me wonder if there are examples of more run-of-the-mill for-profit orgs where EE efforts serve employees and the organization equivalently. I’m on the lookout for those.

But remember, the key limitation I’m working within is the employee-employer engagement equation. The concerns I’m raising don’t hold for situations like the one you describe in your post on What Motivation Looks Like…. since that is about a professional reputation/association where all who get engaged get tangible, transportable, and (not to forget) material benefits along with the joys of engagement. cv

Dan May 10, 2010 at 8:51 pm

I think it is vital that this and other such honest considerations of employee engagement efforts be out in the open.

As David Zinger points out, just about any words or ideas, up to and including such terms as “authentic” (which is particularly dear to me), can be scammed. Consequently, we can’t be afraid of that, nor simply lament the abuse. To the contrary, we should see it as an opening for a deeper level of honesty and engagement through constructive mutiny. Otherwise there could be just a whole lot of defensiveness, pretending, and passivity around a sacred cow instead of doing the very things employee engagement implies.

The power of airing the cynical view, not hiding it, not running from it, but creating dialogue around it, is that there’s a chance we can begin talking about failed ideals and false values in corporations; in effect about organizational cynicism itself as the opposite of engagement, how rampant that is, how elemental it is to lingering mistrust; how part of our old, default cultures that have ruined corporate and leadership regard included all those “rolled out programs” over the years — programs that purportedly engaged people but have often done the exact opposite. We need to talk about cynicism, particularly with something so potentially positive as employee engagement. Then we can begin to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not and begin the genuine, long term process of integration into the fabric of the culture. This won’t necessarily be easy work or a pleasant process. It will take more than passion for the possibilities.

It’ll take courage and plenty of persistence. But personally, I wouldn’t trust any “program,” organizational “effort,” values set, or philosophy that had not hit this wall and survived.
.-= Dan´s last blog ..Mother’s Day =-.

cv harquail May 10, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Hi Dan,

Thanks for encouraging the conversation. Re: your third paragraph, all I can say is “Yes!”.

It may be too fine a point, but I do think there is an important difference between cynicism and skepticism. I think I’m cynical regarding the notion that EE is always or even usually ‘good’. And I think I’m skeptical about whether (or, the degree to which) we can really fix the three issues I’m calling out here… I agree with you that we have to know what the dangers are, and where the potential for abuse lies, even as we move to get employees more engaged (but not too much so) at work.

Thanks for your persistence! cv

Bret Simmons May 10, 2010 at 9:38 pm

CV, you are right, engagement programs are a scam. Those that defend them the strongest have a financial interest in keeping them alive and thriving. I would encourage others to read Wally’s post on the matter. I too have written extensively on problems with engagement programs, but Wally links to my thoughts so I won’t share them here. Thanks! Bret

cv harquail May 10, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Hi Brett- I’d remembered your post on (fake) employee engagement at the bank that gave you bad service, but somehow I missed the earlier ones where you (1) share your enthusiasm for the concept, and (2) share your concern about bad research about EE and bad execution of ee. (Posts like http://www.bretlsimmons.com/2009-08/engagement-there-is-something-wrong-with-this-picture/). So folks wanting a little more of the ‘critical’ view of EE should go deeper into your archives and Wally’s archives. I think the three of us share similar concerns.
I am a little bit less concerned about the consultants who sell EE programs than I am about the employees who ‘buy’ them… I (want to) believe that it is possible to encourage and support engagement without going all the way to exploiting people, and I do know that there are consultants out there who balance the ‘needs of the client’ with what is fair to the employee, and restrain their pitches accordingly. cv

Mike Myatt May 10, 2010 at 9:56 pm

I think it may be worthy to examine the difference between engagement and exploitation, as they are not one in the same. There is nothing at all wrong with attempting to create an impassioned, engaged workforce. In fact, I would say all great leaders strive to create this type of culture. Programs designed to align values and vision with customer needs are simply good business. Asking employees to do more than what is reasonable and in the collective best interests of all stakeholders without fair treatment or compensation is exploitation. More thoughts on why an engaged workforce is important can be found here: http://www.n2growth.com/blog/leadership-employee-engagement
.-= Mike Myatt´s last blog ..CEOs; Feared or Respected? =-.

cv harquail May 10, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Mike, that distinction that you make between ‘engagement’ and ‘exploitation’ is the critical one … and you’re summarizing my bottom line concern (pun intended) succinctly. thanks. cv

David Bowles May 10, 2010 at 10:22 pm

CV you sound like some of the Europeans I meet , when I tell them I work in the area of morale at work. They usually say something like “that’s just a way to screw people more”. This is a poor victim mentality, usually associated with the confrontational union approach to work, and the reason unions keep losing members. And we’ve seen how well that works, haven’t we? Greece’s situation, 20% unemployment in Spain, strikes in the UK and France, on and on. Europe is a basket case, and I am European! Here in North America of course we have the UAW….need I say more?

I am not here to say that employee engagement is perfect, I often write about its myths and faults and how it may yet turn out to be a fad. But CV I am sorry, reading this you don’t seem to have much understanding of this whole field of morale, which includes engagement, and that clouds your vision.

For example, you start out with an absurd statement : “the contributions of the employee are rarely if ever matched by compensation from the organization.” Why absurd? 1) Because under normal circumstances people leave if they aren’t paid a competitive wage, that’s why they call it a job “market” and 2) Most people at work, if you ask them what is most important to them about the job, pick pay # 5 or 6 on a list. They want to learn new things, be challenged etc. All things which engagement gives them. Finally, 3) Most surveyed employees do not complain so much about their pay, believe it or not, and this alone invalidates your statement.

I’ve also spent years doing things, which as you say “contribute to…..life as a partner, parent, community member, soccer player, or plain ‘ole person.” Did I ask a company to do this for me? ARE YOU KIDDING? Since when has this been the organization’s goal? Again, the poor victim who cant take care of him/herself is talking here. Are you looking for a job or a nanny? I made huge strides through great personal difficulty, and never asked my employers to take care of that…it was MY job.

As for “taking it with you”, you simply have no understanding of how much a high morale (read: highly engaged) worker gets from being that way. In Europe, they call this “well being”, which expresses well what they get: a good feeling every day at work, better health (so many studies back this up) and on and on. Forget about what they take with them, they have so many advantages day to day and moment to moment at work…they feel so much better at work than the non-engaged. They also perform better and have all the advantages which flow from that: are you saying that bigger raises, more recognition, more promotions are meaningless?

You seem to think that only the worker “engages” with the organization but this is another basic misunderstanding; someone engages when the conditions in which they work motivate them to make that choice, i.e. the organization has made an equal contribution or they get no return.


cv harquail May 10, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Hi David (B),

Well we seem to have some misalignment of understanding here…I don’t see in your interpretation what I believe I was writing, so let’s just note that as we move into it.

I don’t consider morale and engagement to be the same thing, but as a social scientist I’m one to parse definitions and distinctions quite carefully, and then hew to the ones used in scientific conversation, not so much to the meanings of the terms in a more generic sense. When I talk about compensation, for example, I’m not talking about only money— I’m also considering other things that come back in the exchange between the employer and organization.

Research shows that the labor market is more sticky than you suggest; people do not reliably leave jobs when they believe that their paychecks are too low, there are other material constraints, like for example lack of other job opportunities. “Intent to stay” is not the same as being satisfied with a job, or agreeing that you are being fairly compensated.

Organizations that initiate EE efforts are, in my view, asking a *lot* of employees. I believe that organizations *should* care about the whole person who works for them, if in fact they want to lay claim to that person’s emotions, sense of meaning, and self-definition. These are precious things to an individual, and they should not be given to the organization when that means the individual will be/come stunted in other areas of his/her life.

How much a person gets from being engaged, how much that matters to the ‘whole person’ (in and out of work), and whether this is commensurate with what is expected of that person by their organization is an open question. That’s the question we’re engaging in here.

In the end, if you are going to stick with a ‘market-based’ perspective, consider how profit works: profit is based on ‘excess labor’, “work” that is contributed and not fully compensated. Yes, you can throw capital investments and organizational competencies in there as mediators, but the basic equation remains.

We’re going to have to agree that we don’t agree here. cv

David Zinger May 10, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Good to read the comments and see the dialog occurring here. I think I twigged on the program perspective.

When we transform an experience into a problem (employee engagement is an experience to be lived rather than a problem to be solved) we also begin to throw programs at it instead of conversation, dialog, co-creation, and collaboration.

It seems we often fall for the banking metaphor of education — creating a program to deposit or install engagement into employees rather than developing the relationship to draw engagement out, to resonate with engagement, to be touched by engagement.

Engagement is anemic when it is perceived as an instrumental byproduct of work or the secret sauce to get more work done.

I’ll leave the ending of my thoughts to the Beatles: We can work it out…

Try to see it my way,
Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?
While you see it your way,
Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone.


We can work it out,
We can work it out.

Verse #2
Think of what you’re saying.
You can get it wrong and still you think that it’s all right.
Think of what I’m saying,
We can work it out and get it straight, or say good night.

We can work it out,
We can work it out.

Life is very short, and there’s no time
For fussing and fighting, my friend.
I have always thought that it’s a crime,
So I will ask you once again.

Verse #3
Try to see it my way,
Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong.
While you see it your way
There’s a chance that we might fall apart before too long.

We can work it out,
We can work it out.

Life is very short, and there’s no time
For fussing and fighting, my friend.
I have always thought that it’s a crime,
So I will ask you once again.

Verse #4
Try to see it my way,
Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong.
While you see it your way
There’s a chance that we might fall apart before too long.

We can work it out,
We can work it out.
.-= David Zinger´s last blog ..A BEST Buy: Employee Engagement and Social Media =-.

cv harquail May 10, 2010 at 11:45 pm

Yes, yes, and yes. cv

Gwyn Teatro May 11, 2010 at 12:58 am

This is such an interesting exchange of viewpoints.
As with so many things the term “employee engagement” seems to have been taken up by many and used as a label for activities that have little or nothing to do with its original intent. As such it is in dire peril of becoming one of those empty expressions that people throw around because it sounds contemporary and “with it”…and then becomes fodder for the cliche bin.
This article is very honest and accurately points out how some organizations interpret and then go about “engaging” people so that the organization can get more and everyone else gets less. That is indeed a scam.
And that makes me a little sad
Personally, I am heartened by David Zinger’s commitment to achieving authentic engagement in the workplace. To me, the objective of engagement is to create what Anne Perschel describes as “work-life flow”
If anyone is interested in learning more about Anne’s work here is a link to her latest webinar on that topic http://germaneconsulting.com/germane-insights/

cv harquail May 11, 2010 at 1:29 am

“Temporary”, “with it” and “fodder for the cliche bin” — Gwyn, are you talking about my outfits from TopShop?

You’ve captured well what has lead to my concerns about EE. I’m not quite ready to let go of the question of whether any ‘for profit’ organization seeks to give more than it gets from employee engagement, but boy wouldn’t that be a fun kind of organization to study?

Anne Pershal’s concept of ‘work-life flow’ is *exactly* what I’m thinking about when I’m raising the concern about “employee” vs. person. (She is one of my fave leadership bloggers, too.) Thanks for sharing your concerns… cv

Christine Livingston May 11, 2010 at 3:25 am

Amazing to get your article via email this morning – I am doing a guest post for someone else on exactly this topic so will now link to you!

I agree with much of what’s been written in the comments here. I think the essence and original intention of employee engagement is excellent. The way it has been used in many organisations misses the mark.

Sadly, its focus has gone too much on systems, numbers, language and terminology and thus completely disenfranchises the very people it is supposed to support. Additionally, it’s treated too much as a lever. Something that can get switched on and off as times are good or bad. It does give HR something fact based to talk about at the board table, but sadly too many mediocre HR people have clung on to it like a life raft, imagining it bestows legitimacy.

In my coaching experience, I’ve seen engagement initiatives (although I do struggle with that as a concept) completely shelved while companies go through recession and redundancies. The point that the whole thing is about relationship and that relationship is enduring and needs dialogue and open communication no matter what’s going on is completely missed by many organisations.
.-= Christine Livingston´s last blog ..Social Media. Another 24/7 Work Culture? =-.

Bruce Lynn May 11, 2010 at 3:47 am

I don’t know about your ’employee engagement’ programmes, but if ‘engagement’ is, as you describe, an effort to motivate ‘discretionary’ effort, then that is true gold dust. In fact, one could argue the primary purpose of a leader is to produce ‘discretionary effort’…everything else is obligation. And in the world of ‘knowledge working’, where the tool is your brain not your hammer, about the only thing any worker ever produces these days is ‘discretionary’. That is because it is very easy to mask low productivity (I can stare at a screen all day and feign all kinds of ‘productivity’, or actually a better technique to waste time but appear busy is to go to lots of ‘meetings’).

I suspect what you are really protesting here is ‘bad’ employee engagement programmes. If an executive decided to roll out a ‘programme’ where staff were truly empowered, managers trained to be supportive and rewards generously meted out, I suspect that you would have no issue with that.

I think that one of your major issue here is the ‘give’ (discretionary effort) without ‘get’ (compensation/reward). Well, according to some pundits like Paula Marshall, supposedly employees aren’t motivated by money so the matter of ‘get’ shouldn’t matter. Now, I don’t concur with her perspective, but I think there are ways to measure out rewards for discretionary effort. The most conventional is a well structured and managed MBO system with opportunities for exceeding objectives resulting exceeding rewards. Another is profit sharing. And the most obvious, which drove armies of people to devote their lives with loads of discretionary effort to a range of start-up enterprises is ‘shared ownership’ (ie. everything I contribute goes into my share of the contribution I make). And if it is ownership (shares), then yes you can ‘take it with you.’

Bret – I’m surprised by your stance on this matter. Since you are not fond of ‘performance reviews’ (ie. efforts to link performance assessment to output), then I would assume that you would be, by definition, a big fan of ’employee engagement’ since your perspective is that people don’t work for financial incentives. If that is the case, then there must be other things engaging their discretionary efforts.

I find this piece to be a ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ diatribe. ‘Engagement’ and ‘discretionary effort’ is what every executive should be aspiring for. Doing it poorly and unilaterally is just bad execution. But if an executive has properly idenitfied that his staff are not ‘engaged’, then he absolutely should do something about it. And that something can and should include a system of rewards for the staff.
.-= Bruce Lynn´s last blog ..Sex and Survival =-.

cv harquail May 11, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Hi Bruce- You raise an important point, that Rachel picks up a little later, around the importance of ‘discretionary effort’ to productivity of knowledge workers. While there is still ‘discretionary’ effort involved (i.e., above what is demanded), a large part of this work is (just/rather) a different kind of effort. It is cognitive instead of material/physical. It’s important to make the distinction, since there are a lot of ways that the cognitive work is managed through other somewhat more concrete systems besides engagement– like R.O.W.E. and MBO, and so on. That’s not to take away the importance of truly discretionary effort in knowledge work, but to note that not all cognitive labor or knowledge work is “discretionary”. (Yes, I know I sound like a professor. What can I say?)

Yes, a big issue for me here is the employee – organization exchange, and while I clarified in the comments that I most certainly mean emotional, social, psychological returns as well as material & financial ones, I wasn’t clear enough on that in the post itself. One great way to even out the employee – organization exchange would be through various forms of real gain-sharing.

Like Brett, I’m a big believer in the importance of the emotional, social, & psychological value of work and of organizational membership. I think that I may need to work on how to articulate the argument that these emotional, social, psychological returns — which are key to engagement as defined — can be based on goals that are really shared by employees and the organization (e.g., world peace) versus ones that have a tilt towards the business (e.g., “customer service” or “innovative technology”). I’ll work on this.

Maybe it’s just EE programs that are poorly executed… but I think it’s more EE efforts that are undertheorized and that, like Dan said in his comment very early on, we have to test the ideas and the assumptions to make sure that we’re not avoiding important issues. While I’ll cop to being polemical, it is a rhetorical strategy for pushing the discussion. I’ve certainly been learning a lot. Thanks again for contributing to the conversation. cv

cv May 11, 2010 at 6:21 am

Oh my gosh, I’m never going to post something polemical at the end of the day! All of these thoughtful comments, and I was away from the computer! I’ll do my best to catch up this morning– what a rich set of insights, questions, etc Thank you; more soon. cvh

P.s. I’m editing the timestamps of my replies to comments so that they thread correctly. Then, tomorrow I’ll reload my theme to fix that….
.-= cv´s last blog ..3 Reasons Why Employee Engagement is a Scam =-.

Dennis D. McDonald May 11, 2010 at 7:15 am

Maybe it’s a mistake to think that employee engagement is something you can “manage.”

Rachel Happe May 11, 2010 at 7:43 am

Really interesting post and comments. I would observe that too often we focus on financial compensation being the only lever to give to employees in exchange for discretionary effort. There are all sorts of things that organizations in general don’t do particularly well (although some do) and if they are asking for discretionary ‘engagement’ from employees, they should be think about giving more discretionary control of where/when/what work gets done back to employees. I also agree that in the knowledge worker space, it is very hard to separate what must be done from the discretionary. This does get at the heart of how social software is managed and when it is ‘deployed’ and ‘rolled out’ primarily as a tool it risks failure because you cannot force people to communicate and you certainly can’t force people to communicate well.
.-= Rachel Happe´s last blog ..Social: Moving from Head to Heart =-.

Jim Meredith May 11, 2010 at 9:26 am

For me, working with authentic organizations is “engaging” and the efforts that I dedicate to those organizations benefit me (I am developing as I work) and the organization (fulfilling an authentic purpose). I do not in any way feel exploited, nor feel that I am giving more than getting, nor even thinking of the balance.

I do, however, believe that a “program” and especially an engagement program is an immediate indicator of an authenticity deficit, much like a supposedly inspirational “attitude” poster.

It seems that if an organization has come to an awareness that it needs to address engagement, its next step in self-awareness should be to examine its purpose and its values.

.-= Jim Meredith´s last blog ..A new value equation for organizational real estate =-.

cv harquail May 11, 2010 at 9:40 am

Jim, your comment makes me aware of another ‘boundary condition’ re: concerns of engagement/exploitation… You are both an ‘independent contractor’ and an artist/designer… I’m thinking that the work motivations of an artist make engagement in the work a very different process. It’s intriguing to consider, no? And, as an independent contractor, your expertise and self-sufficiency may put you on a more equal playing field, power-wise, than a ‘regular’ employee. Speculation, and interesting to consider.

Dennis– you, Jim and Scott all raise the issue of the ‘program-ness’ and the question of whether engagement is something to be ‘managed’– and I think you are right… which is prompting an idea for a follow-up post. More on that soon. Thank you all for bringing your ideas into the conversation! cv

Mike Visagie May 11, 2010 at 10:28 am

Hi CV.

A individual’s experience of their business life could be seen as a function of three intertwined aspects. “The Professional You, The True You and The Way of the Team/Organisation.

When these aspects are congruent; the ‘True You’ with the ‘Professional You’ in the context of a team or broader organisation, then our work becomes a vehicle through which we are able to live what is important to us. Alignment between ‘why’ and ‘how’ a person does ‘what’ they do, builds a sense of wellbeing, mastery, meaning, and self direction, all of which stimulate engagement.

The intent must be “People for the sake of People, for the sake of Business”.

If the intent is “People for the sake of Business”, then there is a lack of authenticity and you may be right, perhaps then it may look like a “scam”.

Engagement may be the “what” but we always have to start with the “why”

cv harquail May 11, 2010 at 11:00 am

Mike, I’m so happy to have you comment… especially as I see your *own* website, Appletree.com, and your focus there [ http://www.appletreelive.com/about-us/our-focus%5D

Obviously I’m with your on the concept of aligning these elements of experience (professional, true you and way of team) but what I especially note is the idea of shifting perspective, so that it’s not about “the organization” and “the work” but about “life” (bigger than the person, and encompassing the whole person).

What’s really critical (and I’ll add this to my follow-up post) is the clarity around “taking the business to a place where individual potential can be fully engaged”. That’s the kind of place were EE wouldn’t be a scam, b/c it would impel org change and investment of the org into the whole person. cv

Scot Herrick May 11, 2010 at 11:15 am

You had me at “roll out” and “program.” Employee engagement isn’t something that you roll out; the organizational pieces of engagement need to be part of the corporate culture (culture being the things we consistently do over and over again).

Now, employees need to determine if the company culture they are interviewing for will match up with the way the employee does his or her best work. It really is better for the employee to be engaged in the work just to have satisfaction from the work.

But as soon as you tie “roll out” and “program” together in a corporation, it is usually something like a scam or at least something that has been poorly done in the past. And will probably fail again because of poor execution.

Get engagement in as part of the culture, not a program. That is the “organizational investment” needed.
.-= Scot Herrick´s last blog ..Interview question-How did you prepare for this interview? =-.

David Bowles May 11, 2010 at 12:55 pm

CV looks like things really got fired up here last night and all through the night!! Well good for you in “engaging” us (groan) with this conversation. Although mainly English, I will try to keep that part of me which is a hot blooded Frenchman under control and reply more like David Z…..

OK definitions: morale isn’t engagement, but one flows from the other. So morale is like oil and engagement like gasoline, still not so far apart, a bit refined though. The basic source is the same. Every single advantage given to us by having engaged workers (many) is also present with people who exhibit high morale. For a wonderful discussion on this see:


Why people don’t leave their job: there is some stickiness but not only for reasons that you state. Many people like those they work with, they might love the job itself, and they also don’t want to move. This comes down to personal choice.

Profit: geez I thought the Cold War was over and that even the commies love capitalism now? You mean entrepreneurs who take great risk and hire others aren’t allowed a profit? I thought we resolved all this in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall….

You say: “Organizations that initiate EE efforts are, in my view, asking a *lot* of employees.” CV, it doesn’t work like this in the best companies, some of which I have worked for as a consultant and which have demonstrated year after year of increasing morale. Those companies OFFER something very good, they treat people well, they really do put people first. The worker benefits greatly from that and CHOOSES to engage. This is no forced marriage and the worker is no victim, as I said above. Only when conditions are right will the worker choose to engage. From how I read what you say this is so one sided, maybe you have never worked somewhere really great where people love their jobs and would highly recommend where they work to others? But such organizations are out there, many of them, because they are offering something great, which does “engage” the emotions and feelings and the whole person. I have pored over survey data for hundreds of companies all over the world and that is what the workers say…its not paradise, there are always “issues”, but they they love being there.

best to you

.-= David Bowles´s last blog ..Goldman Sachs: Can Employees be both “Engaged” and Unethical? =-.

David Zinger May 11, 2010 at 6:07 pm

CV, Paul, Dan, Bret, Mike, David, Gwyn, Christine, Bruce, Dennis, Rachel, Jim, Mike, Scot

As Clay Shirky stated: every url is a latent community. Fabulous to see this community dialog at: http://authenticorganizations.com/harquail/2010/05/10/3-reasons-why-employee-engagement-is-a-scam/.

CV I appreciated your apologies in advance at the end of the post. That was very considerate of you.

I was struck by my emotional response to the title of your post. My concern is that for most people who only read a tweet about this post or never check out the amazing contributions of the community here that it will simply be reduced to the statement: Employee Engagement is a Scam.

I have talked and worked with far too many people in far too many organizations to have their work and efforts reduced or dismissed to a scam. I do not believe they were involved in fraud, deceit, trickery, swindle or the other words associated with scam. I also refuse to create villains out of leadership and organizations (of course I work almost exclusively with Canadian organizations so this might skew my sample bias but wow have I seen some awesome efforts in Canada to engage – and often in government and other agencies that are not simply focused on “that someone is making money off your good feelings” ).

I am not Pollyannish, there is lots of work needed to be done, there are organizations and individuals who are exploitive with employee engagement but this blog’s title offers us a constructive view: Authentic Organizations: Aligning Identity, Action and Purpose.

I do feel chagrined in my belief that the major take-away from the post will not be dialog and conversation but a quick sound bite based on the “is” of identity: employee engagement = scam.

What I so much appreciate is the amount of well-crafted dialog here and the level of caring and emotion I have for the topic and the utmost respect for the community of 2400+ who are striving towards authentic employee engagement for all.

I look forward to coming back and reading more and voicing this material in my presentations and workshops with full attribution to you and the many who commented here.

Once again, thank you all for enhancing and enlivening my views and approaches to engagement.

.-= David Zinger´s last blog ..A BEST Buy: Employee Engagement and Social Media =-.

Marci Segal May 11, 2010 at 6:18 pm

Fascinating conversation. Another pov.

What if EE is all about the satisfaction of the people involved in the enterprise? Success in business is measured through economic indicators, so for many old-thinking leaders, people are ‘human capital’ as opposed to human beings. It’s about productivity.

Productivity is related to engagement, engagement is related to happiness (morale), happiness is related to creativity (see Amabile’s latest research). Employers though remain challenged to assess and respond to staff as either workers or shirkers. Wonder what will occur to free their thinking to embrace new and results satisfying mindsets.
.-= Marci Segal´s last blog ..98J7QHHB2FD7 =-.

cv harquail May 11, 2010 at 6:18 pm

Marci, I think you’re right that in the end it’s all about “all” the people in the organization … Taking a more holistic and meta approach to the employee-organization exchange is one strategy for addressing the three issues I’ve raised about EE … And the health & flourishing of each of the stakeholders is related to the health of the system. I really appreciate efforts to help managers put their metrics into that bigger picture, and also to evaluate what the metrics can’t and won’t capture.

And, of course, engagement is importantly linked to creativity, which is your area of expertise… so we’ll be looking to your blog for more ideas on that! [http://marcisegal.wordpress.com/about/].

Mike Klein May 11, 2010 at 6:53 pm


You’re my soul-sister… For the last six months, I’ve been writing the exact same thing targeted to the internal comms world, making some guest appearances in David Zinger’s excellent Employee Engagement Network.

Indeed, my colleagues in the CommScrum blogging collective and I took the wood to “employee engagement” in this piece: http://commscrum.wordpress.com/2010/04/27/time-to-say-good-night-to-employee-engagement/

What is heartening to see from your end is that the toxicity of the “employee engagement” terminology needs to be defused from a number of angles. We internal communicators (who bear some of the burden for ginning up the ‘surplus enthusiasm’ that drives the most egregious top-down, one-way ‘engagement’ approaches) have strong command of the language, but we are rarely the client (albeit too often the initiator). HR/OD often are the client and need to be integrated, and senior management needs to see the flaws in the approach in terms they understand.

Nevertheless, it was very nice to see this…let’s keep the pressure up!
.-= Mike Klein´s last blog ..“It’s Not Just About Social Media”–An Introduction to Social Communication =-.

cv harquail May 11, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Hey Mike (Klein) — It’s intriguing to see (both in these comments and int the tweets, etc. that I’ve gotten) that there is some healthy skepticism about EE as commonly practiced/ rolled out, that this particular post tapped into. For some folks (like David Z. and many of his network) EE is an/other opportunity to get organizations and employees/members to pay attention to the human elements (for lack of a better term) of the world of work. For others, sadly, EE is just another workshop to sell, program to generate ‘productivity’, or initiative to keep employees content. This second group is where a lot of the damage occurs, both in terms of sloppy terminology and unquestioned assumptions.

What can be most toxic is the denial of these key tensions I’m trying to draw attention to. What I have really appreciated in this conversation are the number of EE advocates who believe strongly enough in what they are doing that they welcome the chance to look critically at what may or may not be fatal flaws in the concept.

The post of your own on engagement has some really important statements about what the terms of ‘authentic’ engagement would/could be. One I particularly liked was this:

” And, for organizations to win, they need to create a kind of engagement that aligns the best things those organizations have to offer with the best things that employees (and other stakeholders) have to contribute.”

Peter Korchnak May 11, 2010 at 6:58 pm

In my mind, whether EE is a scam depends on its purpose, on why a company does it. It’s a scam if the aim is exploitation. It’s genuine if it the aim is to make the world and the people in it a better place, to use an overarching simplification.

Another way of looking at it, I think, is whether EE is instrumental or expressive. If a company uses EE as a tool or means to, for example, increase its market share or, ultimately, profit, it’s probably on the scam side of the spectrum. That’s when it’s a program that needs to be rolled out. If a company engages in EE because it’s an expression of what it stands for and why it exists, or because caring for its employees is how it does business, it’s genuine and to be applauded. Though this may be a simplification again, the point is, purpose matters.

Thanks for the provocative post. Keep them coming and you’ll be responding to comments every workday…
.-= Peter Korchnak´s last blog ..Out now: “Age of Conversation 3? =-.

cv harquail May 11, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Peter, you pretty much hit the key difference. Next time, I’m getting you to write the post. cv

Maren May 11, 2010 at 9:37 pm

I tend to think that the historic lack of employee engagement stems from the ways we have organized workplaces. I honestly don’t see a way to truly engage employees without Top Management being willing to release their grip on power over others. Hierarchy and employee engagement are a contradiction (as you noted with your comment how often these EE “programs” are “rolled out.”)

The best example I can think of a company that pulled off Employee Engagement in the most pure sense is Semco, based in Brazil, as chronicled in Ricardo Semler’s books “Maverick” and “The Seven-Day Weekend.”
Employee engagement, in the end, is about making choices for the good of the whole.

At least, that is how I see it.

cv harquail May 11, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Maren, I’m so glad that you’ve brought up the issue of power… it takes a completely different paradigm of power (one that is more about aligned interests and democratic processes) to have an authentic/ not scam-like EE experience. It’ s been a long time since I read the Semco stories, but iirc, the journey they go through gets them/got them closer to authentic engagement, due to a shift from ‘what’s better for profits’ to ‘what’s better for all of us’. cv

jamie showkeir May 11, 2010 at 10:16 pm

once again cv you know how to stimulate thinking, conversation and “engagement”. for 20 years we have described the work we do with our clients as “harmonizing the demand for business results with creating work places where individuals find meaning and purpose at work.” i have found looking at change (and this describes change for most organizations) and approaching it in this manner creates a “both/and” way of thinking.

i think, like other well intended attempts at change, “employee engagement” has become another name for employee exploitation and in that sense is a scam. like others have said though, exploitation is in the action not necessarily in the label.

if achieving results and creating cultures of meaning and purpose is the aim this means confronting issues, systems, structures, procedures, policies, relationships, etc. that are interfering with either results or meaning. this is very difficult work even in organizations that want to do it and nearly impossible in those wearing the mask of EE.

please keep this good stuff coming!

cv harquail May 11, 2010 at 10:20 am

Jamie, it *is* difficult work — in addition to all the other reasons, the ‘mere’ act of bringing forward the question ‘is EE a scam?’ can be dangerous, b/c we need to appear to have it all understood in order to lead it or recommend it and b/c we need to really believe in it to counter the lack of interest or lack of conviction of others whom we are trying to engage.

I guess it’s that whole ‘faith and doubt’ tension. Doubt looks very different when you have faith, but if people don’t know you have faith, they think your doubt is ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. I would like to get better at ‘flagging’ that I have faith in the ideal concept when I’m writing about how/when that concept isn’t working. Looking for good examples to follow, there.

On a different note, your comment reminds me to reiterate that both meaning and results are important to real engagement– but results can’t be the sole motivation for engagement.

Anne Perschel May 11, 2010 at 10:23 pm

CV – Taking a strong stance is a courageous thing to do. Thank you being brave and bold. You have engaged (pardon or enjoy the pun) the community in a needed discussion. Employee engagement is neither a program or a technique. It is a way of being. I couldn’t agree more with the exec who wants to run in the other direction when he hears it is being “rolled out” and “program-ized.” The poster child of engaged organizations, in my view, is Zappos. CEO Tony Hsieh sold a company he founded, prior to joining Zappos, because “it wasn’t fun anymore.” When he turned his attention to Zappos he was intentional about building the culture as Job 1. I don’t know that he ever uses the term “engagement,’ but the seller of soles certainly invites the whole person – soul included – to show up at work every day. To learn more about Tony & the Zappos culture I invite you to read the Corporate Soul Series at http://germaneconsulting.com/tony-hsieh-ceo-zappos-sole-of-the-corporate-soul/
.-= Anne Perschel´s last blog ..Work-Life-Flow: Webinar Recording =-.

Cali Yost May 12, 2010 at 7:09 am

I am late to this very interesting party but I wanted to offer an unique perspective that answers all three of your main concerns about employee engagement–that it focuses on the “employee” not the person; that it is about “more take, less give,” and that it’s about what you give, you can’t take with you.

Here at the Flex+Strategy group we have successfully used strategic flexibility in how, when and where work is done and life is managed as a lever to achieve not only many traditional engagement outcomes BUT also to improve the ability of individual employees to optimize their work+life fit. In other words, it’s that win for the business AND the person.

Here’s data from one of our clients after we created a shared vision of flexibility, developed readiness within all levels and 6 months after we helped the client facilitate a nationwide orientation about the process guiding the day-to-day execution of the strategy:

BDO Flex Strategy Survey Six Months Post-Orientations, January 2009 (35% response rate)

Personal work+life fit and understanding of flexibility–Percentage of respondents saying the BDO Flex strategy “positively impacted:”

• 72%: My ability to manage my work+life fit as a BDO employee in a way that meets my needs and the needs of the business
• 72%: My knowledge of how flexibility benefits the business
• 71%: My knowledge of the BDO Flex tools and resources available within the Firm

Employee engagement measures—Percentage of respondents saying the BDO Flex strategy “positively impacted:”

• 72%: My willingness to recommend BDO to others
• 71%: My desire to stay at BDO
• 70%: My job satisfaction
• 63%: My motivation
• 62%: My productivity—working smarter and better

I have never understood how any organization can fully “engage” only the work 1/2 of an employee. The example above shows that addressing individual work+life fit objectives as part of a broad, business-based flexibility strategy process results in a focus on the “person,” you get more and give more, and what the employee gets in terms of a better work+life fit they can take with them.

Here is link to entire BDO Flex key metrics case study:

Thanks, CV! Excellent conversation.


Derek Irvine, Globoforce May 13, 2010 at 10:50 am

Chiming in a bit late to the discussion, but there are quite a few people I respect and learn from commenting here.

For me, the distinction is the motivation behind EE in the organization. Is EE something you are trying to DO to employees — yet another “initiative” being foisted upon them? Or is ee (small letters intentional) something you are hoping to foster in the org? It’s the latter we believe in more.

To me, you cannot create, encourage or incent EE. You can only create a work environment in which employees may choose to engage. Think about it. In my career I’ve worked in positions where I simply did not see the point of what I was doing or what the company was trying to achieve. In those positions, why should I care? Why should I give my all and more? Why should I “engage?”

Then again, I’ve also worked in positions and companies in which I not only understood where the company was going and what they were trying to accomplish in the world, but I also fully understood how I could help get us there and how my efforts mattered and were appreciated in accomplishing that. In these situations, I didn’t have to “be engaged” by some initiative, I chose to engage myself and yes, give discretionary effort, because I personally understood and believed in what was going on.

Those are two very different scenarios. Companies considering EE need to step back and take a deep, hard look first at what they are communicating to employees, how they are aligning company strategic objectives with personal tasks, how they are making company goals real in the daily work of every employee.

That’s the magic dust, but there’s no magic in it. Just good, solid business practice. We believe the most positive way to effect this is through strategic employee recognition that specifically and deliberately recognizes employees when they demonstrate a company value in contribution to achieving a strategic objective. (The two need to be intertwined to eliminate deviant behavior, but that’s a different discussion for another day.) When you do this consistently and frequently, and you allow and encourage every employee to participate, then you help employees make the connection between their work and the company purposes, lending meaning and value to what they do.
.-= Derek Irvine, Globoforce´s last blog ..A New Model for Recognition * Give Them What They Need AND Want =-.

Doug Shaw May 13, 2010 at 11:51 am

Hey CV. David Zinger tweeted about this and I just wandered by. And enjoyed it. Great piece of writing and always enjoy a different point of view. Derek Irvine’s point about fostering over foisting is well said. Good work 🙂
.-= Doug Shaw´s last blog ..The Trust Overlap =-.

Tony Berkman May 13, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Engagement means just that, an engaged employee. As an employer I pay money for employees to be engaged in their jobs. I do not view employee engagement as anything less than when you are being paid to do a job you should be engaged in it. If not, then it’s probably not the job for you.

What does an employee get from being fully engaged in a job? They learn faster, they grow more, they contribute more, they have better skills to leverage when they look for another job. I am in the business of growing employees. I am not here to engage employees so that they remain with my company. If they find another job, that provides them with other opportunities, I am 100% in favor of them taking it. As an employer I am committed to “employer engagement.” I pay 100% of what is owed to each employee, and I provide employees with the opportunity to grow and become more while at my company.

I am certain there are organizations that use the term “employee engagement” as some feel good, rah rah, strategic marketing plan to get employees to give more.
If that is an organization’s intent, then I agree 100% with you posit.

However, to lump all “employee engagement” into a “scam bucket” is a nonsensical point, probably designed to get people to disagree over a point that is so skewed that it makes little sense to even discuss.

Rich DiGirolamo May 18, 2010 at 7:47 am


Call it engagement. Call it morale. We can even call it a scam if you would like – this is your page. Bottom line is employees are not too happy at work these days and in too many cases are not being utilzed in the way they should. Their talents and creativity are being squashed. Their ideas aren’t given any consideration; forget serious consideration.

When employers start looking at the contributions available to them in every person on their team, stop labeling people for one mistake and find out what excites people, we won’t need to come up with the phrase du jour – like employee engagement, but instead focus on building kick-ass companies.

Spencer July 11, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Thanks for a great article.

I agree that at time the big engine of business forgets about the oil that keeps the engine humming along. That oil is the hearts, minds, and hands of the workers who produce products or deliver outstanding services in the name of profits.

Over the last half decade I have worked hard to change the culture at one large aerospace manufacturer. What I find from the shop floor is frustration. The workers are flat frustrated with change. They feel slighted, dupped, or lied to. Is it a real concern? May and maybe not. I think they need to vent for the most part.

So, with the change efforts I have been leading I always take a heart-based approach to change (employee engagement) by connecting my message to each employee at a personal level. I am almost an evangelist for change that matters most at work and away from work. What I teach is transferrable to the home life as well as work life.

I am truly reaching out to the employees and asking them to find their WIIFM and connect that to the means to an end called the employer with the paycheck. See, even if you hate the company. Even if you distrust or dislike leadership. Even if you feel used. Get over it! Your engagement is important because it supports loyal customers support, increased revenue and profits, and stability of the paychecks coming in that help you support your WIIFM in life. It is a fine balance. The trick is getting the people of the company engaged in understanding the reasons why a company needs better engagement, involvement, and productivity. It is all about you!

I bring balance to change and to employee engagement. It has to be about the person first and the company second. If you get the person moving because it benefits them personally it will ultimately benefit the business. Call me for information about Team-Based Competitiveness.

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