Defining employee engagement

Emma Bridger

27 Jan 2023
Employee Engagement
One of the most worthwhile contributions to the debate on what employee engagement means comes from a report from Jonny Gifford and Jake Young of the CIPD.

In the report they draw on a rapid evidence assessment of employee engagement to explore definitions, measures and outcomes. The scientific summary of the evidence review is well worth a closer look.
The aim of their report, published in January 2021, was to provide practitioners with a “stronger understanding of employee engagement and a clearer basis to act on it, building the credibility and impact of those specialising in this field”. In other words, they wanted to help raise the professional bar and enable practitioners operating in this area to make a bigger difference.

Within their report, they begin by asking if there is agreement as to what employee engagement is. And it will come as no surprise that their answer is no. However, despite the lack of agreement amongst not just practitioners, but academics too, they don’t believe that we need to abandon the label of employee engagement just yet!
They recognise that the field and practice of employee engagement has made a positive contribution to progressive people management practice. However, their call to action is that we can - and should - do better when it comes to defining what we mean by employee engagement.
The starting point for any practice which is looking to develop and improve employee engagement must begin with a shared understanding of what we mean by this. Gifford and Young also argue this point stating:

“any respected profession must take its core terms seriously. To use them to good effect, they need to carry weight. For that we need shared understanding of what they are; and for that we need some precision. There is a time and place for crystallising what core terms mean and how they should be used. Nailing this frees us up to discuss what matters most.”

In the report, they recognise that employee engagement can be difficult to define, and is often seen as “contentious and woolly”. They offer a helpful understanding as to why this is the case, explaining that it is often treated inconsistently. On the one hand, employee engagement is described as a “broad umbrella term for an overarching area of people management”, but at the same time it is treated as a “precise construct that can be defined and measured”.
It is useful to consider these two perspectives when seeking to understand what employee engagement could mean to your own organisation. Gifford and Young argue that problems arise when we try to mix these two perspectives. For example, we might talk about employee engagement in a holistic way, viewing it as more of a philosophy, but then share annual survey results where we claim that two out of three employees are engaged, which is very precise.

Being able to accurately measure employee engagement has to begin with clarity on our definition, otherwise how do we know what we are measuring?

Within their report, Gifford and Young make the distinction between employee engagement and work engagement:

  • Employee engagement describes a broad subject area or umbrella term that includes work engagement and other more specific terms, such as intellectual engagement, organisational engagement, motivation and organisational commitment
  • Work engagement describes the specific state of vigour, dedication and absorption that features most strongly in the scientific research
They have developed the following model to help navigate the use of employee engagement as an umbrella term. The model firstly views employee engagement as a psychological state of being, and the terms associated with engagement are detailed, but also outlines the antecedents or drivers of engagement, as well as the outcomes of engagement.

A model of employee engagement as an umbrella term

(Gifford, J. and Young, J. (2021) ‘Employee engagement: definitions, measures and outcomes’. Discussion report. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development).

Gifford and Young's report makes a really valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion on employee engagement and is well worth a look.

Related Resources

Created with