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Employee Engagement in the Public Sector: A Review of Literature




2.1 The purpose of this chapter is to review how employee engagement is defined in the literature in order to identify if a clear and common idea of what engagement is can be drawn out. Firstly the evolution of employee engagement as an increasingly popular concept is discussed. This allows us to build a picture of engagement, and demonstrate how it means more than earlier concepts of commitment, motivation or organisational citizenship behaviour ( OCB). Next this chapter discusses the definitions of employee engagement throughout the literature and highlights the key characteristics by which an engaged workforce can be identified.

Evolution of the concept

2.2 'Employee engagement' is a relatively new term in HR literature and really started to come to prominence from 2000 onwards. Melcrum Publishing (2005) found that from a global survey of over 1,000 communication and HR practitioners 74% began to formally focus on the issue between 2000 and 2004.

2.3 Having reviewed an extensive amount of literature, the commentary on the evolution of employee engagement is summarised by the following points:

  • It builds upon and goes further than 'commitment' and 'motivation' in the management literature (Woodruffe, 2006 as cited in CIPD, 2006a)
  • A desk review undertaken by Rafferty et al (2005) indicates that it originated from consultancies and survey houses rather than academia
  • The level of interest it has generated indicates that it is more than a passing management fad and a considerable amount of research and analysis has been conducted in the last 10 years or so building up our understanding of the term.

2.4 As pointed out in Rafferty et al (2005), the concept of employee engagement has as its foundation, two well-researched precursors - employee commitment and organisational citizenship behaviour.

2.5 Commitment literature - Silverman (2004) (paper presented as Appendix 1 in Robinson et al 2004) discusses the different directions the study of employee organisational commitment (see definitions below) has taken over the previous decade, noting that more recent research emphasises the multidimensional nature of commitment that implies commitment cannot be realised through one single human resource ( HR) policy. In other words, people are motivated by a range of factors, and these differ from person to person. The earlier commitment literature, which discusses the various kinds of commitment and the impacts of a committed workforce, lays the foundation for understanding of engagement and the evolution of the concept. As is discussed later, commitment and engagement are not considered to be one and the same. Whilst commitment is an important element of engagement, engagement is considered to be more than just employee commitment.

2.6 Tamkin (2005) reviews commitment in the literature and highlights an early model by Allen and Meyer (1990), which defines three types of commitment:

  • Affective commitment - employees feel an emotional attachment towards an organisation;
  • Continuance commitment - the recognition of the costs involved in leaving an organisation; and
  • Normative commitment - the moral obligation to remain with an organisation.

2.7 As noted by Tamkin (2005), not all of these forms of commitment are positively associated with superior performance - employees who feel high continuance commitment for whatever reason, but lower levels of affective and normative commitment are unlikely to produce huge benefits for the organisation.

2.8 The closest relationship with engagement is 'affective' commitment as explained by Silverman (2004) (paper presented as Appendix 1 in Robinson et al 2004). This type of commitment emphasises the satisfaction people get from their jobs and their colleagues, and the willingness of employees to go beyond the call of duty for the good of the organisation. It also goes some way towards capturing the two-way nature of the engagement relationship, as employers are expected to provide a supportive working environment.

2.9 This point is expanded upon by Meere (2005), who highlights that organisations must look beyond commitment and strive to improve engagement, as it is engagement that defines employees' willingness to go above and beyond designated job responsibilities to promote the organisation's success.

2.10 Organisational Citizenship Behaviour ( OCB) literature - this predates employee engagement, but is highly relevant to it. The review of OCB literature by Barkworth (2004) (paper presented as Appendix 2 in Robinson et al 2004) defines its key characteristic as behaviour that is discretionary or 'extra-role', so that the employee has a choice over whether they perform such behaviour. These behaviours include voluntarily helping of others, such as assisting those who have fallen behind in their work, and identifying and stopping work-related problems in the first place. As these types of behaviour are not normally part of the reward system, absence of such behaviours is therefore not punishable by the organisation but performance of them should lead to effective running of it.

2.11 Over 30 different forms of OCBs have been identified and defined and these have been classified by Podsakoff et al. (2000) in Barkworth's paper (2004) (paper presented as Appendix 2 in Robinson et al) into seven themes:

  • Helping behaviour - voluntarily helping others
  • Sportsmanship - being able to carry on with a positive attitude in the face of adversity and being willing to set aside personal interests for the good of the group
  • Organisational loyalty - promoting the organisation to the outside world, and staying committed to it, even when doing so could involve a personal sacrifice
  • Organisational compliance - following organisational rules even when not being monitored
  • Individual initiative - demonstrating performance over and above what is expected
  • Civic virtue - macro-level interest in the organisation as a whole, such as a loyal citizen would display towards their country
  • Self-development - voluntarily improving one's own knowledge, skills and abilities in such a way as to be helpful to the organisation.

2.12 OCB links very strongly to employee engagement as it focuses on securing commitment and involvement which lies outside contractual parameters - often referred to as the individual 'going the extra mile'.

2.13 In terms of the impact of OCBs on organisational effectiveness, three behaviours: helping behaviour, sportsmanship and civic virtue, appear to lead to performance gains. The fact that helping behaviour was not beneficial in all studies 2 raises the issue of the context in which the behaviours are to occur, as they will not be suitable in all situations.

2.14 Further, Barksworth (2004) (paper presented as Appendix 2 in Robinson et al 2004) notes research by Organ and Ryan (1995), which found that attitudinal variables such as job satisfaction, organisational commitment, fairness and leader supportiveness all have a positive relationship with OCB. Task-related variables are also identified in this literature as important antecedents to OCB. Barksworth (2004) (paper presented as Appendix 2 in Robinson et al 2004) quotes Podsakoff's (2000) findings that such variables as feedback and satisfying tasks are significantly correlated to altruism, courtesy, conscientiousness, sportsmanship and civic virtue.

2.15 Variables that have a negative relationship include breach of the psychological contract 3, abusive supervision and task routinisation. All of these issues are, in some way, linked to leadership style and behaviour, either directly or more subtly. Therefore, the obvious starting point in trying to harness OCB should be from the top-down, as the impact made by leaders and managers does seem to affect the demonstration of OCB. This finding links strongly to the role of management in securing engagement - see later discussion.

2.16 How does employee engagement differ? It appears that engagement, although sharing strong characteristics with each of these two concepts is about more than commitment and/or OCB on their own. Rafferty et al (2005) draw the distinction on the basis that engagement is a two-way mutual process between the employee and the organisation. Sharpley (2006) (as cited in Harrad 2006) also points out that it is important to distinguish between motivation and engagement, as it is possible to be motivated in one's job without necessarily feeling an attachment to the organisation. In Sharpley's (2006) (as cited in Harrad 2006) definition of engagement there must be a mutual feeling of support between the employee and the organisation.

Definitions of employee engagement

2.17 As discussed above, it would seem that when engagement is talked about, it refers to a multidimensional concept that involves some kind of two-way interaction between the employee and the organisation. As the literature notes, employees can be motivated and committed to their jobs, without necessarily engaging with the overall strategies and objectives of the organisation, or without really feeling the wider impact of their efforts.

2.18 Most of the literature employs a multidimensional approach to defining employee engagement, where the definition encapsulates several elements required in order to achieve 'true engagement'. For example, the CIPD (2007a) defines employee engagement as a combination of commitment to the organisation and its values plus a willingness to help out colleagues. According to this view, engagement is about more than job satisfaction and is a more complex concept than motivation. Similarly, Schmidt (2004) defines engagement as bringing satisfaction and commitment together. Whilst satisfaction addresses more of an emotional or attitudinal element, commitment brings in the motivational and physical elements. Schmidt (2004) contends that while satisfaction and commitment are the two key elements of engagement, neither on their own is enough to guarantee engagement.

2.19 Ellis and Sorenson (2007) point to the inconsistent way in which the term engagement has been applied by business leaders and human resource ( HR) professionals over the last 20 years. They highlight the inconsistency of using the term to refer to attitudes or to employee perceptions of specific elements of their work environment or benefits, which they feel have 'little' to do with engagement. They endorse a two dimensional definition of engagement that defines an engaged employee as one who 1) knows what to do at work and 2) wants to do the work. It is their strong view that engagement should always be defined and assessed within the context of productivity, and that the two elements of engagement noted above are necessary for driving productivity.

2.20 Right Management (2006) defines true engagement as every person in the organisation understanding and being committed to the success of the business strategy, and that this goes beyond more than just simple job satisfaction and incorporates aspects of commitment, pride and advocacy about the organisation's products and brand. Whilst the onus is on the organisation to manage communication effectively to involve employees and align them with the organisation, this clearly requires input and feedback from employees as well to make the process work.

2.21 The CIPD Annual Survey report (2006c) defines engagement in terms of three dimensions of employee engagement:

  • Emotional engagement - being very involved emotionally in one's work;
  • Cognitive engagement - focusing very hard whilst at work; and
  • Physical engagement - being willing to 'go the extra mile' for your employer.

2.22 The survey report states that the very engaged will go one step further and speak out as advocates of their organisation, in what they describe as a 'win-win' situation for the employee and the employer.

2.23 Some authors discuss the varying degrees of engagement employees can experience. Meere (2005) describes three levels of engagement:

  • Engaged - employees who work with passion and feel a profound connection to their organisation. They drive innovation and move the organisation forward;
  • Not engaged - employees who attend and participate at work but are timeserving and put no passion or energy into their work; and
  • Disengaged - employees who are unhappy at work and who act out their unhappiness at work. According to Meere (2005), these employees undermine the work of their engaged colleagues on a daily basis.

2.24 Buchanan (2004) describes the difference between rational commitment and emotional commitment. Rational commitment results when a job serves employees' financial, developmental or professional self-interest. In contrast, emotional commitment, which has four times the power to affect performance as its more pragmatic counterpart, arises when workers value, enjoy and believe in what they do. According to the figures of the Corporate Leadership Council quoted by Buchanan (2004), about 11% of the workforce are classified as 'true believers' and demonstrate very high levels of both commitment types; another 13% at the other end of the normal distribution curve demonstrate little commitment and are classified as the 'disaffected'.

2.25 In much of the literature, the definition of engagement is illustrated by the behaviour of good practice employers and the characteristics of engaged employees. Therefore, to summarise, Table 2.1 highlights the following key elements that are common across much of the literature. These have been categorised in terms of what elements can be classified as drivers of engagement and those that are the results of engagement and the characteristics of an engaged workforce.

2.26 The factors that determine engagement are primarily driven by the organisation, and it is the extent to which the organisation takes these issues on board and addresses them in an effective manner than will influence engagement levels. Of course engagement is a two-way process and whilst engagement is organisation-led, it requires inputs from the employee as well. It is explored in later chapters how employees place different values on these factors and also how these driving factors can potentially vary across demographic variables.

2.27 It was interesting to note that at no stage did the literature make any reference to how these characteristics might vary between the public and private sectors. As discussed in the next Chapter, on the occasions where the literature discussed sectoral applicability, it unanimously suggests that the key principles of employee engagement transcend all organisations irrespective of sector.

Table 2.1 Characteristics Defining Employee Engagement

Definition Characteristics



Drivers/inputs into engagement

Two-way relationship between employee and employer

  • "Similarity to the psychological contract - unwritten, underpinned by trust - easy to break."
  • "Organisations have to work to engage employees - and may have to put in a lot to reach their goal of a committed, enthusiastic and engaged workforce"
  • "An important point to note is that engagement is two-way; organisations have to work to achieve it."

Robinson et al (2004)

Robinson et al (2004)

CIPD (2005)

Business appreciation & vision

  • "Employees must understand the context in which the organisation operates. It is insufficient for employees to be committed to their organisation; they also need an element of business appreciation, so that any changes they make to their jobs could be seen to have business benefits."
  • "Of course, when you have the right people you have the trouble of creating ways of letting them know what is going on in the business and where they fit in …'line of sight' - in regards to business goals and objectives."
  • "Knowing what to do at work - understanding the organisation's vision of success and how the employee can contribute to achieving that vision…"
  • "We also have it confirmed here that communication - knowing what's going on, what's planned and why - is crucial.
  • "The report describes a group of people who receive a clear vision, are inclined to support the organisation's objectives, and who are also highly engaged."
  • "Fundamentally, good internal communications should be about effective transfer of knowledge or meaning within the organisation, so that people understand and support the organisation's business goals - it's not just about 'broadcasting to the troops'."

Robinson et al (2004)

Penna Consulting (2006)

Christian, M. et al (2007) Segal/Sibson (2006)

CIPD (2006a)

CIPD (2006a)

Investors in People IIPUK (2006)

Employee Involvement

  • "We talk more about words like 'involve', 'participate' and 'respond' rather than 'engage'. That means creating shared meaning and understanding in a way that our people actively want to participate." ( BBC case study)
  • "These are interesting findings and can be taken to emphasise that people want a sense of involvement - or being to some extent in a partnership with their employer."

Melcrum Publishing (2005)

CIPD (2006a)

'Elbow room' / discretionary behaviour

  • "….give them lots of opportunities to contribute…."
  • "… people who have reasonable autonomy in doing their job, sometimes called 'elbow room', and who find their job challenging are likely to have high levels of job satisfaction…."

Buchanan (2004)

CIPD (2006a)

Effective Communication

  • "…employees having a voice - being able to express their opinion upwards to their manager and beyond."
  • Ref management style - "…keeps the person in touch with what is going on. Listening to suggestions."
  • "The main drivers of employee engagement are: having opportunities to feed your views upwards; and feeling well informed about what is happening in the organisation…."
  • "… challenges you to raise the level at which you communicate with your people, making the dialogue increasingly two-way and giving people a greater say and stake in decisions which affect them."

CIPD (2006a)

CIPD (2006a)

CIPD (2006b)

IIPUK (2006)


  • "This points to the primacy of the quality of the relationship between employee and supervisor, sometimes called 'leader-member exchange'."
  • "Managers themselves have to show commitment to the organisation, what we would call 'committed leadership'."
  • "…engagement, which is influenced by …..management capability - reflected in professional, fair and impartial behaviour. It is possible to be motivated in one's job without necessarily feeling an attachment to the organisation or the management… however, a feeling of engagement requires a wider sense of supporting and being supported by the organisation."

CIPD (2006a)

CIPD (2006a)

Sharpley (2006) (as cited in Harrad 2006)

Results of engagement/characteristics of an engaged workforce:

Employee identification with the organisation

  • "Employees need to believe in its [organisation's] products and services, and particularly its values"

Robinson et al (2004)


  • "Wanting to do the work - obtaining a sense of satisfaction from the job and work content and being inspired by the organisation to perform the work."
  • "Employee engagement, or 'passion for work', involves feeling positive about your job, as well as being prepared to go the extra mile to make sure you do the job to the best of your ability."

Segal/Sibson (2006)

CIPD (2006b)

Pride & Advocacy

  • "…people's commitment, pride and advocacy (what employees say about company products, services and brand)."
  • "We believe that the pride taken in working for their employer, and their willingness to recommend their employer as a place to work to friends, are excellent barometers of engagement and meaning"
  • "Engaged employees will help promote the brand and protect the employer from the risks associated with poor levels of service…..similarly, a strong employer brand will help in attracting and retaining employees"

Right Management (2006)

Penna (2007)

CIPD (2007a)

Summary and key findings

  • The evolution of employee engagement lies in work on employee organisational commitment and organisational citizenship behaviour.
  • Although elements of these ideas are important to engagement, engagement is viewed in the literature to mean more than either implies. 'Going the extra mile', providing discretionary effort, being aligned to the organisation's objectives, being capable of delivering the results and wanting to deliver results for the good of the organisation are defining characteristics of the engaged employee. Reflecting the two-way dynamic of engagement, capability arises from the employee's own abilities but must also be supplemented by the employer providing an environment conducive to allowing the employee to work at their potential level.
  • The key elements that underpin a definition of 'employee engagement' include:

Drivers of engagement

  • A two-way relationship between the employer and employee
  • The importance of the individual being able to align themselves to the products, services and values of the organisation
  • The ability of the organisation to communicate its vision, strategy, objectives and values to its staff so that they are clearly understood
  • Management give staff sufficient 'elbow room' and autonomy to let them fulfil their potential
  • The employer is highly effective at engaging in two-way communication with its staff, in particular encouraging upward communication
  • Lastly, that management from the top to the bottom of the organisation are 'committed leaders' and that the key role of the immediate line manager/supervisor is recognised as one of the most important conduits to achieving effective employee engagement.

Outcomes of engagement

  • Staff are able to get 'involved' in the organisation and feel that they are genuinely participating and contributing to its performance
  • Staff have a pride in their organisation and endorse it as a place to work and do business with to people outside the organisation
  • Staff demonstrate real commitment to their job and the organisation and are prepared to 'go the extra mile'.