Who is responsible for employee engagement?

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This last week I was a keynote speaker at a human resources (HR) conference. I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman who made an argument for why HR is not responsible for employee engagement.

You might be wondering how this came up. Often, boards of directors and leadership teams look to and point a finger at HR when employee turnover is high. Many senior leaders expect that HR needs to “own” the employee experience and employee engagement. This kind of conversation always generates great emotions on all sides. After thinking about this conversation more deeply, it is critical that we start this conversation more broadly.

What am I referring to when I say, “employee engagement”? I am referring to the point in time when an employee feels so valued, so listened to, and so respected that they go over and above for their team, their manager and their organization.

Here are five schools of thought regarding who is responsible for employee engagement:

  • Human resources (HR)

The most prevalent opinion is that HR “owns” employee engagement. For those making this argument, they make it mostly for the obvious reason. They are “human” resources. In this argument, they are responsible for anything that goes wrong with any of the employees inside or outside the organization.

To the contrary, the gentleman to whom I spoke at the HR conference argued that employee engagement is not the responsibility of human resources (HR). In his opinion, HR should be focused on tactical things like payroll, benefits and workplace conflict. He further posited that HR doesn’t really have the tools or knowledge base to lead this effort.

While I believe that everyone inside the organization has a role to play in employee engagement, HR must play a leading, or at a minimum, partnering role by virtue of their intimate knowledge of the human capital ecosystem. They must be fully supported in this area. They deserve a seat at the table.

  • Executive leaders (including the board of directors)

Another popular opinion is that the executive leadership team, along with any boards of directors, are the key architects of employee engagement. This position points to the fact that the most senior decisionmakers in an organization navigate the organization in one direction, or another, and determine where to direct resources.

I do believe that the executive leaders in any organization are crucial in employee engagement efforts as they must approve budgets, remove barriers, act in congruence with stated visions and norms and demonstrate high levels of enthusiasm around all efforts. They must also ensure that HR and other stakeholders are empowered to do what is necessary to improve the experiences for employees.

  • Employees

In the work that I do, I often hear the argument that employees are responsible for their own engagement. People who make this argument point to self-reliance in that they believe that employees must create their own happiness, their own positive view of work, and their own opportunities.

There is some validity to this argument, but what is overlooked is the imbalance of power between employees and management. There are many examples of a lack of empowerment, micromanagement that stifles any creative thinking and even sabotage.

Having said that, employee engagement is impossible if employees don’t provide open and honest feedback, aren’t flexible through change initiatives, or they become apathetic and siloed. They are, indeed, the critical piece of the employee engagement puzzle, but cannot fully direct their own experiences.

  • All supervisors and business unit managers

Many believe that employee engagement is the responsibility of the “boss”. I have written extensively about this both in my book, The 7 Intuitive Laws of Employee Loyalty, and in past articles. I do believe that all levels of management drive the kinds of emotions that make employees want to stay or leave an organization. This directly connects to their level of discretionary effort. I will continue to surface additional ways that managers can produce these emotions and drive higher levels of engagement.

For now, we must not leave management out of the employee engagement discussion.

  • Everyone

There is a newer discussion that everyone owns employee engagement-from the janitor, to the supervisor to the CEO to the members of the board of directors. Some may argue that this is a cop out in that if everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. If no one is responsible, then nothing gets done.

This is a valid point. We need to make sure that there are measurements and accountabilities associated with any employee engagement efforts. If not, it will only be a conversation. We need to be specific about who is responsible for what and how them accountable for results.

My thoughts

While I do believe that managers have the biggest opportunity to create fertile ground for engagement success, employee engagement is not possible unless all stakeholders are bought into the need for it and their roles in it. I think we need to continue to look at all the models and ideas to decide which governance model is best. No matter what, this is not a “one and done” scenario, nor should the good or the bad be placed on the shoulders of one department or person. This a hefty load that must be carried by many.

Please lend your voice to this conversation. Leave a comment with your perspective. Do you feel strongly on one side of the other? Share it with others who can add value.

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