The concept of engagement has attracted a great amount of attention from both scholars and practitioners in PR. Various forms of engagement have been examined, including digital engagement, public engagement, and employee engagement. Nevertheless, engagement is still not clearly defined in our field and industry (Jelen-Sanchez, 2017). Both researchers and practitioners have called for more research on internal publics—employees (Men, 2014). A Delphi study of European public relations practitioners revealed that “employee engagement, loyalty and motivation, value for money, and trust and credibility as the hottest issues” for those practitioners (A. T. Vercic, D. Vercic, & Sriramesh, 2012, p. 229).
More recently, Gallup’s 2016 State of the American Workplace report found that merely 33 percent of U.S. employees were engaged at work, based on its data from “more than 195,600 U.S. employees via the Gallup Panel and Gallup Daily tracking in 2015 and 2016, and more than 31 million respondents through Gallup’s Q12 Client Database” (Gallup, 2016, p. 1).
To address these problems surrounding engagement, we answer the call for more research on employees, and attempt to provide employee communication managers with practical suggestions to best engage employees, we proposed an employee engagement model based upon the relationship perspective in public relations practice and social exchange in human interaction.
Our view of employee engagement focuses on role performance as employees’ responses to interactions that their employers initiate. In line with Kahn’s (1990) and Saks’ (2006) arguments, we define employee engagement as the enactment and presentation of employees’ selves at work, manifested in physical, cognitive, and emotional forms. An engaged employee is physically devoted to job tasks, cognitively attentive and focused, and emotionally linked to their work (Kahn, 1990). Employees can also choose to disengage in their role expressions and performance.
Informed by our survey results of 568 employee responses, we proposed a model focused on the interrelations among organizational engagement strategies, employee engagement (physical, emotional, and cognitive), contextual performance, and positive and negative messaging.
As key factors leading to employee engagement, organizational engagement strategies consist of openness (to what extent an organization discloses information about itself), assurance of legitimacy (to what extent an organization takes its employees seriously by acknowledging and addressing their concerns), and networking (an organization’s approach to affiliating or partnering with groups beneficial to and endorsed by its employees) (Shen, 2011). Employee engagement is also closely related to employees’ contextual performance behaviors (Schaufeli, 2013). Contextual performance captures the voluntary behaviors of employees that contribute to the broader organizational, social, and psychological environment (Motowidlo & van Scotter, 1994), such as helping other employees with their work when they have been absent or helping other employees when they have a great amount of work load. Given that affective public engagement results in publics actively advocating on behalf of organizations (Men & Tsai, 2014), we also examined in our model positive and negative messaging behaviors as voluntary positive or negative information sharing about an organization’s strengths and weaknesses.
Key findings of our study included the following: (1) Organizational engagement strategies boosted employee engagement; (2) employee engagement also contributed to employees’ contextual performance; (3) high employee engagement also led to employees’ positive messaging rather than negative messaging behaviors.
Our study provides employee communication managers with the following research-based suggestions:
- Understanding employee engagement as employees’ physical, cognitive and emotional manifestations of presence at work, employee communication managers are encouraged to help set up training/facilitating programs and workshops to enhance employees’ engagement behavior and promote a supportive and understanding environment at all levels of an organization.
- To cultivate an engaged workforce, organizations ought to consider being open with employees (openness), through tools such as annual reports and regular employee meetings to offer information about organizational decision-making and governance and encourage employee disclosure and feedback at the same time. Employee communication managers can contribute to policy making, execution/implementation, and evaluation of such initiatives.
- Organizations with engaged employees tend to invite employee voice and legitimize their concerns (assurances of legitimacy), and build alliances and partnerships with professional associations, trade organizations, and non-profit organizations that are beneficial to employees. Employee communication managers are encouraged to “engage” employees and solicitate their feedback in the strategic planning and execution of any alliance and partnership building.
- Employee communication managers are responsible for advocating for the value of engaged workforce to the C-suite. Engaged employees praise their organizations to others and go the extra mile to volunteer, help others, and take the initiative to improve organizational policies and practices. These actions contribute to a healthy organizational and potentially a fully functioning society in the long run. Peer learning, front-line management/guidance of such contextual performance, and a reward system can be very helpful.
- Overall, employee communication managers play a critical role in helping top executives of an organization understand the role of engagement strategies, analyze how engagement leads to employees’ behaviors benefiting long-term business success of an organization, and make decisions and policies to implement engagement strategies and reward employees’ contextual performance and positive messaging behavior.
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Hongmei Shen, Ph.D., APR, is an associate professor in School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.
Hua Jiang, Ph.D., is an associate professor in S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
Jelen-Sanchez, A. (2017). Engagement in public relations discipline: Themes, theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches. Public Relations Review, 43(5), 934-944.
Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33, 692-724.
Men, L. (2014). Why leadership matters to internal communication: Linking transformational leadership, symmetrical communication, and employee outcomes. Journal of Public Relations Research, 26(3), 256-279.
Men, L. R., & Tsai, W.-H. (2014). Perceptual, attitudinal, and behavioral outcomes of organization-public engagement on corporate social networking sites. Journal of Public Relations Research, 26(5), 417–435.
Motowidlo, S., & Van Scotter, J. (1994). Evidence that task performance should be distinguished from contextual performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(4), 475-480.
Saks, A. M. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21, 600-619.
Schaufeli, W. B. (2013). What is engagement? In C. Truss, K. Alfes, R. Delbridge, A. Shantz, & E. Soane (Eds.), Employee engagement in theory and practice (pp. 1-37). London: Routledge.
Shen, H. (2011). Organization-employee relationship maintenance strategies: A new measuring instrument. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 88, 398-415.
Vercic, A. T., Vercic, D., & Sriramesh, K. (2012). Internal communication: Definition, parameters, and the future. Public Relations Review, 38, 223-230.