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Lucy Standing

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Does HR really have control over employee engagement?


What is employee engagement, really? Lucy Standing wonders whether we have the right questions, let alone the right answers.

Employee engagement is a fashionable buzzword. One of the overriding impressions is that engagement is driven by the managers of an organisation - Forbes recently ran with an article headlined 'employee engagement: every leader’s imperative'.  

As a leader you can work hard to get things right, but the reality is that engagement is a two-way process. Positive moves and gestures won’t help if employees have neither the motivation nor desire to be engaged.

The hard truth is that we live in a rapidly changing world influenced by different demographics, smart technologies and a shift in generational aspirations. The context in which people are working is in constant churn. As a psychologist and a trainer of many years, I’d like to share six factors which I believe influence employee engagement – each often beyond the immediate reach of management. Understanding these factors should help us to manage success and expectations of what can be realistically be achieved in our fast moving world...

Portfolio career, entrepreneurialism and freelance working

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) reported that the number of people working freelance as a main job increased by 11.9% between 2008 and 2011 [1]. There has been a boom in entrepreneurs and portfolio workers (people who work for two or three employers at a time), and an Experian survey in 2010 showed since 2005, the number of entrepreneurs had jumped by 117% [2]. The recession partly explains this, as do tax advantages and wifi technology - but as a psychologist, I tend to favour Dan Ariely’s explanation (author of Predictably Irrational) that people are most motivated by doing meaningful work. Today’s new generation is often prepared to sacrifice guaranteed income in return for doing ‘what you believe in’. A big shift from previous theories and practices which assume people are motivated money. 

Generation Y is redefining loyalty

According Dan Schawbel, (author of Me 2.0) Generation Y stays in a job for two years, compared with Generation X who remains on average five years, and Baby Boomers who stay for seven [3]. Twenty years ago an employee who held one job for ten years was considered loyal; today we wonder why haven’t they moved on? For HR departments running expensive graduate development programmes this has a major effect on ROI. Progressive organisations see this change as a PR opportunity. If three to four times more people are rotating through the doors, they calculate the upscale on the number of corporate ambassadors– free publicity if you like.  

Our ageing population

Our population is ageing – and we are just realising the impact. A study by Carers UK [4] describes that a staggering 2.3m adults have given up work to care for an elderly parent and almost three million have had to reduce their working hours. This has most significantly hit the 45-55 year old age group. These people are not leaving work because they want to – they leave because they have to. Worryingly, these are the employees with proven, effective skills combined with a mature attitude to work. Consider the people in your organisation – are the majority in this age group? Have you noticed a shift in their ability to juggle work with caring responsibilities?   

Changing motivations

As we age, pay off mortgages, as our children leave home, our need for stability and a steady income arguably becomes less important. As we age, our priorities change – what used to engage us one time won’t necessarily at others, which means companies need to get better at reaching out to attract people at different stages of their lives. I personally know three women in their early 40s with successful former careers who are moving into medicine. As we’re living longer, they each consider that their careers have another 25 to 30 years of potential. Imagine the impact their life and professional experience will have on their bedside manner. Large organisations have graduate recruitment or MBA schemes, but rarely do I see or hear of anything broader. Are we too narrow in our focus? 

How cool is your company?

If your company is riding high, the media darling of the moment, your employees will report higher levels of engagement because they’ll feel pride in working there. Academic literature refers to this as ‘positive external prestige’ (PEP). Herrbach’s research [5] consistently found a significant relationship between PEP and turnover churn: “employees with positive perceptions of the external image of their company are less willing to quit”. We align ourselves with organisations we consider to be admired and prestigious as this helps our own self-image. If you work for an ‘unsexy’ company, chances are you can try to engage all you want – but your ability to achieve this will be much harder.

Relationship between employee and manager

A Dale Carnegie report on employee engagement in 2012 [6] asked what drives employee engagement? The top response was relationship with immediate supervisor. As HR professionals, we can equip managers with the skills to manage employees – but the quality of relationship between an employee and their manager goes beyond what a classroom can teach. It can’t guarantee that the relationship will be positive or constructive. Quite often people unfairly blame their managers for the quality of their relationship, but the employee is equally responsible. Should we be skilling up employees instead of managers?

I firmly believe that engagement at work is the touchstone that all HR executives and consultants strive for. Naturally, we can impact engagement levels through the recruitment processes we design and influence, the employment policies we create, the support and advice we provide to supervisors, and the values and competencies we help shape.

We can do much to influence engagement – but we must be aware of the big picture, of major trends shaping society; without this, we lose our ability to successfully manage expectations about what HR can deliver and we lose credibility. 

The changes we are living through present us with huge opportunities to do things differently; to help organisations with whom we work to stand out from the competition. What are your thoughts on the contextual factors that, as training and HR professionals, we need to consider to successfully manage expectations of how we deliver impact business impact?

Lucy Standing is an occupational psychologist, associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and principle member of the Association of Business Psychologists. She has developed a not-for-profit social learning website called Neutrain. It provides people with free access to training materials and is also a free platform for professionals to market their services


[1] REC Flexible work commission report

[2] Experian press release

[3] Dan

[4] Carers UK newsroom

[5] Herrbach O., Mignonac K. and Gatignon A. (2004), “Exploring the role of perceived external prestige in managers’ turnover

[6] Dale Carnegie white paper: employee engagement and why it matters:


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