How to Define and Improve Employee Engagement

June 20, 2019
Updated December 8, 2020

Employee engagement has become the holy grail of the business world. It promises a boost in productivity, higher innovation, increased retention, and a better reputation for your organization. But it can be hard to know how to improve employee engagement, or even where to start since it has so many facets. This article will cover how to improve employee engagement strategies at every step of the journey, from tips on hiring to finding insights in exit interviews.

How to Define Employee Engagement

While there are many definitions of employee engagement, the polling company Gallup has been tracking employee engagement in the U.S. since 2000. Their survey divides employees into three categories:

  • Actively Engaged: Employees who are enthusiastic about their work and committed to their employer.
  • Not Engaged: Employees who regularly perform at the bare minimum level and who have few emotional attachments to their workplaces.
  • Actively Disengaged: Employees who dislike their responsibilities and employers so much, they’re willing to leave work undone, openly criticize coworkers or decisions, and create a toxic working environment.

For many years, the percentage of actively engaged employees on Gallup’s engagement surveys has hovered in the mid to high teens. But encouraging data from August 2018 shows that more employers are recognizing the importance of engaged employees. This poll reported 34 percent of respondents as actively engaged in their organizations. This report also found a drop in actively disengaged employees—only 13 percent reported being miserable at work, leaving 53 percent in the not engaged category.

How to Understand the Challenges of Employee Engagement

Why is it so hard to fully engage employees? Let’s start with an analogy: the story of how I learned to drive.

My very nervous mother took me out to a deserted country road in a stick-shift Toyota pickup that was only slightly younger than me. After some noisy practice with engaging the clutch, we were finally ready to start moving.

I shifted from first to second gear and the transmission was forgiving. Second to third gear— terrible protests from the gearbox. We made it to 40 mph before Mom noticed the potholes ahead.

Needless to say, I didn’t get my license on schedule.

Promoting employee engagement in an organization is a lot like a group of kids trying to drive a stick shift car. The employees are pushing down on the gas pedal, HR controls the brakes, managers shift gears, leadership watches the road and calls down instructions. Everyone has to get the feel of working together, aligning each employee’s efforts with the other moving parts of the organization, all without creating too much friction.

Then as every employee’s career progresses, keeping them engaged means carefully timing the shifts in responsibilities and positions so that their meaningful efforts combine into a result that’s bigger than the sum of its parts, moving the organization forward instead of letting it coast.

With that perspective, having 34 percent of employees actively engaged is an impressive feat. It would seem more employers are taking the time to plan out the employee experience, measure employee satisfaction, and coordinate employee development in their organizations.

Employee engagement isn’t built in a single day. But as you continue to work on engaging employees, you’ll find a wide range of benefits throughout the employee lifecycle—both for the employee and the organization.

How to Improve Employee Engagement Through Hiring

When you’re driving on the freeway, taking a different exit can mean the difference between traveling to Portland or San Diego. When you’re hiring new employees, the decisions you make can also lead to dramatically different results, not only in individual employee engagement but also in workforce engagement across the organization. Every new hire has the potential to shake up how employees interact with each other, either reinforcing your organization’s values or detracting from your culture.

To be a great hire, a new employee needs to align with the organization in several different aspects:

  • Compensation: Does the new hire’s salary/benefit expectations match what the company can consistently provide?
  • Values: Do they respect how the organization operates to achieve its goals?
  • Competency: Do they have the skills to meet the position’s responsibilities?
  • Culture: Do they have personal and emotional skills to relate to their new coworkers and management?

In brief, job candidates will ask themselves two main questions:

  1. Can I work here?
  2. Do I want to work here?

When employees can answer both questions with an enthusiastic yes, they’re ready to engage with your organization.

During the Great Recession, some employers took the second question for granted. But when the economy is strong and there are more job openings than available candidates, it becomes more important than ever to keep new employees engaged. This isn’t just about employee engagement in HR terms but also the financial impact of poor hiring.

Consider a 2018 survey from Jobvite, which indicated that 33 percent of new hires quit within the first 90 days. (Those are some crowded off-ramps.) Factor in an oft-cited SHRM statistic that lists $4,129 as the average cost-per-hire, and it becomes clear that each mis-hire can affect your personnel budget, making it even harder to make a good hire.

Strategies for Effective Hiring

Write job descriptions, not employee descriptions. Sometimes hiring managers base their job ad on their best employee instead of analyzing the real requirements to do the job. This can lead to distorted expectations from the organization while excluding qualified applicants from the recruiting process. And if a candidate meets these high expectations, there may not be room to grow with your organization, limiting opportunities for employee engagement.

Identify training capacity. It’s easier for candidates to align with the organization when the organization is also able to make adjustments. For each job description, identify which skills are needed from day one and which skills can be learned or refined on the job.

Develop a compensation plan (and stick to it). Even if talent is in short supply, making comp exceptions to get someone in the door is a bad idea. According to a study from compensation research firm PayScale, how your employees perceive your compensation plan has five times the impact on engagement as the actual compensation numbers. Cutting a new hire a sweet deal may leave current employees asking why they didn’t start at such a high salary, and leaving the new hire no room for a raise may cause doubt about your company’s capacity for development.

Looking for more effective hiring strategies?
Download our ebook Your Talent Acquisition Ecosystem: Managing the Employee Lifecycle.

Hiring with long-term employee engagement in mind can help new hires stick with you for the long haul. Look for candidates who align well with your organization’s values, who can appreciate the compensation you offer for your work, and who have room to develop with your organization.

How to Improve Employee Engagement Through Onboarding

Have you ever forgotten to run an errand while driving home from work because your brain is on autopilot? Sometimes, our normal routines are ingrained so deeply they almost disappear. This feature of how the human brain forms habits can be one of the biggest challenges to keeping new employees engaged during the onboarding process.

New hires are just learning to navigate the twists and turns that more experienced employees take for granted and may need help with tasks that you barely think about anymore. Understanding their perspective is the first step toward providing an onboarding experience that keeps them engaged.

The Jobvite survey referenced previously went into more detail about why 33 percent of new hires quit their jobs in the first 90 days. 43 percent of those employees who quit reported that the day-to-day role described during the hiring process wasn’t what they experienced when they started work.

First impressions have an enormous impact on new hires’ expectations. But first impressions don’t stop when new hires accept an offer. Your newest employees size up their experience more carefully during the first few weeks with your organization. If it matches what you promised during the hiring process, it strengthens that initial good impression from your company and paves the way for employee engagement.

So while onboarding requires many different tasks for compliance, it’s important not to overlook the training and relationship building that set a pattern of employee engagement from the beginning.

Strategies for Effective Onboarding

Clear the paperwork. With everything new employees need to learn on their first day, there are much better ways to spend time than reading, signing, and walking around with paperwork. An HRIS with e-signature capabilities lets new hires complete forms in advance so they can focus on more important matters.

Make a great first day. Along with the orientation presentation, provide some time for new hires to get to know their new teams. We recommend a team lunch to start developing colleague engagement (because a restaurant meal with new friends beats a first-day PB&J in an empty break room).

Assign a mentor. Even the best first day can’t cover everything, but after that introduction ends and work begins, it can be difficult for a new hire to know when or how to ask questions—or who they should ask. Providing each new hire with a mentor gives them a known resource for technical or cultural questions.

Pace the learning. No matter how thorough the orientation meeting, there will be some aspects of your organization that new hires won’t understand without the context of their own experience. Providing additional orientation sessions for new hire groups (such as a financial benefits Q&A with your 401(k) provider) can help give every part of the employee experience the attention it deserves.

Centering the onboarding process on a great employee experience shows new hires that your organization isn’t just on autopilot. It shows that you’re willing to support each individual’s specific needs.

For a more thorough exploration of employee engagement during onboarding, download our Definitive Guide to Successfully Onboarding Your New Employees.

How to Improve Employee Engagement with Employee Development

Conventional wisdom says that a new car loses a few thousand dollars of its value as soon as you drive it off the dealer’s lot. There’s also pervasive advice telling employees that they need to switch jobs every three years in order to maximize their earning and development potential.

When employees feel that their employer doesn’t care about their professional development, they can see themselves as a depreciating asset, as shown in this post on employee engagement and development. Study after study finds countless employees disengaging from their organizations because of a lack of professional development.

Why does your organization value its employees? Is it for what they provide right now? Or do you value what they can become during their time with you? When you can align your organization’s development opportunities with the factors that motivate employees, it can lead to greater employee engagement.

Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs to explain the wide range of human motivation, starting with physical needs at the base and extending to self-actualization at the top. While the needs at the base of the pyramid take precedence over the needs at the top, fulfilling the needs at the top is a stronger indicator of satisfaction.


Put another way: your employees aren’t going to be worrying about their main purpose in life if their hair is caught in the factory machinery.  But when their basic needs for safety and salary are met, they start considering their higher needs and look for an organization that will provide them.

Compensation alone won’t cut it; “I could take or leave the company, but they pay well” is hardly a ringing endorsement. When the economy is strong, employees have their choice of organizations, all eager to pay them a salary. Keeping employees engaged when they have a choice takes more than signing checks.

Strategies for Effective Employee Development

Break up the performance management behemoth. Managing performance doesn’t have to involve the time-consuming, all-encompassing monster known as annual reviews. Instead of trying to cram evaluation, compensation decisions, and position changes into a single process, set up a structure that gives each subject the time it deserves.

Open up one-on-one communication. Give managers time and structure for one-on-one meetings where the only purpose is to talk about the employee’s recent performance. Half an hour each month is generally enough for managers and employees to discuss what went well, identify areas for improvement, and ask each other for clarification or support on upcoming projects. Adding performance management software to track goals can help improve the results of these meetings and increase workforce engagement between managers and employees.

Recognize your employees. There is more to recognition than bonuses (even if employees won’t say no to some extra cash). Evaluate your organization’s recognition structure. Are managers providing regular informal recognition for good performance? Do higher-ups recognize individuals or departments after successful initiatives? Meaningful recognition supports employees’ higher motivational needs and shows them that their experiences with your organization have value.

Make clear succession plans. Employees want to know what your organization can offer for their future.

  • Do you fill positions from within?
  • Do you have plans in place between managers and departments if a current employee wants to apply for a new position?
  • Are there natural funnels between certain departments (such as sales development and sales)?

Help employees and managers become familiar with these possibilities at your organization. Your organization might benefit from employees’ hidden talents and your employees might find greater satisfaction in a position that better matches their skills and plans for the future.

Offer appropriate transparency. It’s hard to promote employee development to employees who believe the organization is circling the drain—they’ll doubt your capacity to deliver. Providing appropriate context for how employee efforts fit in your organization’s larger mission and vision can show employees how their efforts matter and help them stay engaged on a higher motivational level.

(Personally, the worst pep talk I ever had at work was when the hedge fund manager with the controlling stake in the company told us, “You know, you were the worst investment my fund ever made. But hey, you’re still here!” Three employees quit within days.)

Lasting employee engagement doesn’t come from a single event. The employees who are willing to engage with your organization need to know that your organization is willing to engage with their lives and provide appropriate support for all their motivational needs.

How to Measure Employee Engagement through Exit Interviews

There comes a moment in every employee’s experience when it’s time to trade in the clunker for something better. Engagement doesn’t prevent turnover. But it does give you more of the good kind of turnover, where employees move on from your organization instead of running away from your organization. How employees leave can have an impact on employee engagement throughout the company and even make a difference in your recruiting efforts.

There’s a term that describes the macro-level interactions that people have with your company: employer brand. Kleenex and Band-Aid received enough favorable exposure for the public to make their brand names more popular than the words “tissue” or “bandage”—and as people are exposed to your organization, they’ll decide who you are, what you do, and how they feel about it.

In the past, employers had more control over this exposure. It was harder to get a hot take on the employee experience without calling a current employee or visiting the organization. But today, nearly half of all job candidates research companies on Glassdoor, where reviews from current and former employees are as prominent as the official company line. Job candidates can get the dirt with a single tap on their mobile device.

This doesn’t mean you should panic if a terminated employee delivers a nine-part tirade on his way out. Bide your time. Job candidates tend to focus on the most recent reviews, with most employees only caring about reviews from the previous six months.

The ratings employees leave will provide a pattern for people considering your organization and help shape their first impressions. What’s the pattern of compensation in your organization? Are you improving on your flaws or ignoring them? If your employees remain engaged when they leave, their honest reviews can help build a positive, attractive employer brand.

Strategies for Engaging Departing Employees

Keep clarity throughout the exit process. If you’ve followed the advice in previous sections, regular communication between managers and employees has helped develop engaged employees. The exit interview process is a chance to continue this effective communication, letting managers, employees, and leadership offer honest feedback and learn from each other.

Take action where appropriate. Even when the economy is booming, your organization shouldn’t feel that it’s too difficult to replace a toxic or incompetent employee. Employee engagement doesn’t mix well with employee disengagement. If an employee doesn’t take the opportunities you offer to improve performance or make needed changes, termination can show accountability and help protect the other employees on that employee’s team.

Provide appropriate transparency. Your employees will look for the reason behind every departure. Providing appropriate details when team members depart can help the remaining employees process the change without pessimistic guesswork. It’s also important for the organization to be open when macro-level decisions lead to layoffs or resignations. It’s better for your employees to know that your organization tries to use its mistakes to improve than it is to leave them blind to continuing challenges and wondering whether they’re next on the chopping block.

Recognize employees’ reasons for leaving voluntarily. Understanding and categorizing the reasons employees leave can help your organization improve.

  • Is the employee leaving for improved compensation or development opportunities?
  • Is the employee following a spouse or loved one in a relocation?
  • Is the employee pursuing other life goals, such as raising children or pursuing service opportunities?

Leave the door open. When engaged employees leave voluntarily, stay connected with them. Some organizations even curate alumni networks to keep in touch with former employees. This can provide access to expanded networking and recruiting opportunities, and some employees may decide to return to your organization with new skills and experiences when a different position opens up.

Software Tools for Employee Engagement

You can reach your destination in a car without A/C and power steering, but it certainly won’t be as enjoyable as a trip in a fully-featured one. Consider the following software tools to make the work of employee engagement more enjoyable for your employees, managers, recruiters, and HR staff:

Applicant Tracking System: This software tracks and records essential information about each candidate so you can start workforce engagement from the day you hire (or re-hire).

Performance Management Software: Managers are the frontline of employee engagement. Streamlining the process of recording and reviewing performance essentials for each employee leaves more time to focus on improvement.

Employee Satisfaction: Every employee deserves a voice in their organization. The anonymous satisfaction survey in this tool gives them that voice and helps leadership respond to large-scale employee engagement trends.

Recognition Platforms: Some of the most meaningful recognition comes from colleagues. Implementing a recognition platform for employees to reward each other can help encourage this practice.

Compensation Research Software: Where compensation is concerned, knowledge is power. Compensation research software can help you stay current with salary trends so you can provide your employees with a foundation of fair compensation.

How to Build Employee Engagement that Lasts

Picking one element in this article as the most important part of employee engagement is like deciding whether the engine or the tires matter more on a vehicle. For optimal employee experience, your organization needs the tools, time, and strategy to cover every aspect. As you measure the employee experience, facilitate open communication, and respond to feedback, you can cultivate employee engagement—from their first day to the last.

HR insights delivered to your inbox.

Get caught up every month on all things HR. Don't worry, we promise we won't spam you.

Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson expertly decodes all things HR, drawing on a decade of technical writing in the business organization industry to provide editorial support to internal and external learning programs at BambooHR. His writing explores the different motivations that shape the employee experience and the psychology of human resources.