The Engagement Referent Barrier: What are the differ- ent referents for employee engagement and what refer- ent should we focus on in our organization?

Title: Translating Employee Engagement Theory into Practice at Contracting Firms




Leaders in all sorts of businesses have started realizing that one of the big differentiators for them is the uniqueness of their workforce that cannot be duplicated by competitors and brings them a sustained advantage (Fisher, 2006). Company leaders are more and more concerned with implementing practices that will provide work culture that promotes effective engagement of their workforce to achieve business success.In last decade there has been a lot of focus on Employee Engagement as a factor driving a lot of positive outcomes for businesses. Both research and practitioner literature has shown positive impacts of employee engagement on organizational level outcomes such as shareholder value, profitability, customer satisfaction as well as at individual level with engaged employees showing positive job attitude, job performance, better health and overall well-being(Saks, 2107), (Buys C, 2010) (Shimazu A, 2012) (Steele JP, 2012) (Yalabik ZY, 2103) (Christian, 2011). There has been a debate on how and if employee engagement differs from related and well established constructs such as organizational commitment and organizational identification (Reissner, 2013) (Macey, 2008). However, it has been reasonably concluded that Engagement is considered as a higher –order motivational construct that provides a relatively enduring state of mind that provides psychological connection with work resulting in self investment of personal resources in work (Christian, 2011) (Macey, 2008). Inspite of benefits associated with employee engagement research has shown that most companies are struggling with low engagement. A Gallup survey showed that only 13 percent of global workforce could be considered as highly engaged with around half of workforce not agreeing to recommend their employers to their peers (Deloitte, 2015). This combination of employee engagement benefits and dropping engagement has made this issue a high priority for organizations (Deloitte, 2015). However, even with extensive research pointing to importance of engagement, the factors that drive it and ways to improve it, the outcome has been lower engagement. This paradox is hard to understand and even though employee engagement has been made very popular by practitioner works is still missing the rigor of academics to a level where consensus can be reached on a definition or framework oron how to measure it and what its drivers and outcomes are. Academics have started catching up on this term and last decade has seen an explosion of research on this topic in academia and we have seen work on its antecedents and outcomes and theoretical frameworks but still a lot more needs to be done before it becomes a standard construct. To add to this there is the question of what do employees engage with? Different interpretations have been given: engaggment with their job (job engagement), engagement with their work (work engagement), engagement with their organization (organizational engagement) etc. where each will will require their own adaptations of definition, referents, measures and drivers (Saks, 2107). Alan Saks in his paper on translating employee research into practice defines 5 barriers that an organization must overcome to develop a meaningful strategy to reap the benefits(Saks, 2107).  Saks define these barriers as:

“1. The Engagement Definition Barrier: What is employee engagement and how should we define it in our organization?

  1. The Engagement Referent Barrier: What are the differ- ent referents for employee engagement and what refer- ent should we focus on in our organization?
  2. The Engagement Measurement Barrier: How do you measure employee engagement and how should we measure it in our organization?
  3. The Engagement Driver Barrier: What are the main drivers of employee engagement and what drives engagement in our organization?
  4. The Engagement Strategy Barrier: How can we develop an effective employee engagement strategy that will result in a highly engaged workforce?”


Each of these barriers needs to be worked sequentially to reach to an operational implementation. This study will work through these barriers individually to develop a model of organizational engagement that is specific to our industry context.


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