As someone who studies employee engagement, I occasionally get asked by reviewers, “Who actually benefits from employee engagement?” Even while defending my dissertation a few years ago, which investigated employee engagement, a committee member said, “This is no reflection of the work you did, but in reading through this, I couldn’t help but think manipulation.” This led to an interesting conversation with my committee members about whether or not employee engagement could ever be a process that does not serve as a means to an organizational end.
Most of the current literature assumes a functional understanding of employee engagement. Many scholars argue that employee engagement mediates an organization’s practices and its overall effectiveness, including the bottom line (e.g. Gruman & Saks, 2011; Meng & Pan, 2012; Welch, 2011). In this dominant, functional perspective, employees are grouped together and then monetized for the sake of the organization’s performance, which could lead to the objectification of internal audiences (Pieczka, 2018). Rarely, do we see scholars arguing for employee engagement for the employees’ sake, where this audience is seen as having intrinsic value beyond impacting the organization’s performance.
In our recent article (Lemon & Palenchar, 2018), we found that disengagement occurred when employees were doing the bare minimum. This means that the only way to be an engaged employee was to go above and beyond the responsibilities of the job. Therefore, simply doing what was expected was not enough, leaving others, including management, to assume the employee was not engaged. This normalized and expected “overengagement” can lead to blurred lines between an employee’s work and home life and result in burnout (Heide & Simonsson, 2018, p. 211). Such implicit views of employee engagement are similar to what Tompkins and Cheney (1985) refer to as concertive control, where rules and regulations are replaced by a shared understanding of the values and objectives that prioritize the organization.
Therefore, as the overseers of employee engagement, public relations specialists are tasked with the important role of guaranteeing that employees experience genuine and individually-driven engagement instead of being inconspicuously persuaded into exercising engagement (Lemon & Palenchar, 2018). This practice would take a more co-creational approach, which goes beyond achievement of an organizational goal and identifies employees as partners in the meaning-making process (Botan & Taylor, 2004).
In the same vein, scholars should also be striving to conduct more non-functional research to transition away from viewing employees as an assumed audience. This could lead to a deeper understanding of employee engagement that goes beyond seeing the process as a tool for organizational success. In addition, non-functional research and understanding would ensure that we, as employee engagement scholars, aren’t unknowingly advocating for the manipulation of employees, but instead uncovering the ways in which employees can be individually-valued and supported. Such appreciation and acceptance has the potential to transcend the organizational setting and influence the lives of those associated with the employees, which could lead to a more “fully functioning society” (Heath, 2006, p. 96).
Laura L. Lemon, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Botan, C. H., & Taylor, M. (2004). Public relations: State of the field. Journal of Communication, 54(4), 645–661.
Gruman, J. A., & Saks, A. M. (2011). Performance management and employee engagement. Human Resource Management Review, 21(2), 123–136. doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2010.09.004
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Lemon, L. L., & Palenchar, M. J. (2018) Public relations and zones of engagement: Employees’ lived experiences and the fundamental nature of employee engagement. Public Relations Review, 44(1), 142-155. doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2018.01.002
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Pieczka, M. (2018). Critical perspectives of engagement. In K. A. Johnston & M. Taylor (Eds.), The Handbook of Communication Engagement (pp. 549-568). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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Welch, M. (2011). The evolution of the employee engagement concept: Communication implications. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 16(4), 328–346. doi.org/10.1108/13563281111186968