Employee Engagement Isn’t an HR Issue

When in a tight employment market, HR needs to lead the charge for employers to take a close look at themselves. If your culture is not human-focused, you’ve long since passed the point where HR can make a difference. Nope. Culture isn’t about HR. It’s about the CEO and the C-Suite – and every other leader in the organization. 


Here’s the proof: Gallup collects data annually about the state of employee engagement around the world. The U.S. data over time are extraordinary. And not in a good way. Despite years and years of research – academic and faux, more scholarly articles than can be listed (see HBR, the Economist, etc.), more industry-sponsored articles from the likes of SHRM, ATD, HBR, WorldatWork, etc., more industry-written white papers (see every HR tech or service provider anywhere in the world), and even some real journalists (if there are any these days) writing about employee engagement; despite billions of dollars spent by employers to measure and improve employee engagement; despite thousands of competitions to measure and rank the top employee-focused cultures in the world – despite all of this attention, the engagement needle hasn’t moved at all. Not. At. All.

Nearly 20 years of focus, discussion, research, conference presentations (mine included), publishing, and billions (billions!) of dollars spent to improve the basic dynamics of the employer-employee relationship have resulted in failure. Pretty spectacular failure to boot. 

It’s not an HR issue but HR can lead the charge

Culture, and the resulting level of employee engagement, isn’t an HR issue, it’s a leadership issue. (See this post written by a female engineer when she left Uber.) Put another way, if HR is the guardian of your culture, good luck with that. And it’s not because HR isn’t capable, smart, strategic and part of the power structure. It’s because HR is only one function. A culture that values its humans and works hard to create an inclusive and engaging environment for every single one of its stakeholders requires everyone’s – C-suite members’, executives’, leaders’, supervisors’, AND EMPLOYEES’ – commitment to value the humanity of its humans. Period.

When we delegate the creation, care and feeding of our organizations’ culture to HR, we’re saying “that’s not my job.” And that’s just wrong. To be clear, culture is everyone’s job. Not just HR. Not just the C-Suite. Not just the senior leadership. And that’s why we’re not getting the job done, as the Gallup data clearly shows.

Are there organizations that get this? You bet! And guess what? They usually outperform their industry peers by every measure – financial, growth, quality, turnover and yes, employee engagement. So it’s a mystery why more leaders are not stepping up to the culture imperative. The empirical data are proliferating more and more every day that support this basic formula:

Culture + Employee Engagement = Success

Whether your organization is the size of SAS Institute or the size of Acuity or Dixon Schwabl, creating a humanity-focused culture that engages its employees is doable. It takes leadership, focus, teamwork and commitment. Not easy, to be sure. But between your external market success and your internal talent engagement, you’ll win every battle. But don’t leave it up to HR. Own it at every level. Employee engagement is NOT an HR issue.

Originally published in HR Examiner

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China Gorman

China Gorman

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