Is Employer Behaviour The Missing Link In The Debate About Employee Engagement?

How many blogs or articles have you been bombarded with on the subject of employee engagement? More than a few I suspect? We are continuously informed that employee engagement is at an all-time low, somewhere around the 40% mark, or even lower some would argue.

We see a stream of interventions proposed which claim to be the panacea for our engagement woes, however despite these magic cures we have witnessed no improvement in employee engagement overall.

The basis of successful employee employer relations exists within the unwritten contract that exists between employees and employers. HR researchers and professionals call this “The Psychological Contract” (Robinson,1996). The basis for the psychological contract goes something along these lines in an ideal employment situation where this unwritten contract is perceived as being honoured.

You pay me for 38 hours of work. I usually work more than this on average to meet the demands of the business. In return for this extra effort you reward me with job security. I continue to work hard and put in extra effort. You recognise this extra effort and reward me with monetary and non- monetary rewards such as development and promotion. Safe within our mutually beneficial working relationship I am motivated to continue to work hard, contributing to the success of the organisation. I believe you will treat me fairly. You continue to value my efforts and we both benefit symbiotically. We both enjoy a win- win relationship. I am proud to work for you and enjoy a sense of well – being. I leave work most days with a smile on my face.

Or, is this the reality for most employees?

I work 50 hours plus per week, this is expected. This work has been rewarded with pay rises which do not keep pace with inflation and the rising cost of living. I enjoy no job security. Many of my colleagues have been retrenched due to continuous restructuring or ‘Right Sizing’. My career plan is focused on remaining employed and not getting promoted. Senior managers talk about impacted roles and not human beings. I am unsure of the future and feel I cannot make plans for things such as buying a home or educating my children. Work lacks meaning, there seems to be no point or purpose to it. I look forward to weekends but don’t really enjoy them. My job lacks purpose, I have stopped caring.

The key concept which underpins the psychological contract is reciprocal behaviour. The trust that if one party behaves in a particular way that this behaviour will be responded to in an expected manner. I work hard for you in return you value and retain my services – I sell my time at a fixed rate in return for ongoing security. Reciprocal behaviour underpins most human interaction, it is the basis for our civilised society.

The real issue which presents itself now is there is no real job security. The nature of work has changed radically but employee expectations have not. Employers have changed how they operate within the system but still expect employees to bring to the table what they have traditionally delivered despite the changed nature of the work environment.

Workplace law and public policy must have an overarching purpose tied to the fundamental objectives of the employment relationship. But what are these new objectives and how can they assist organisations to improve the state of employee engagement?

Befort and Budd (2009) propose the following triad of fundamental objectives in the creation of a new employment relationship between employees and employers – The three objectives are:

Efficiency: Effective, profit maximising use of labour and other scarce resources;

Equity: Fairness in the distribution of economic rewards, the administration of employment policies, and the provision of employee security:

Voice: Meaningful participation in workplace decision making.

Employers have not changed the way in which employees are brought into organisations. The usual recruitment and selection processes are still adhered to as are the same expectations of employees but fundamentally the game has changed. The way in which employees are rewarded for work has not changed in any significant way for a long time.

In essence if employment is moving towards a model of less permanence then the unwritten contract which exists between employers and employees needs to be redesigned. A balance between what is reciprocated must be redefined. If we are to see employee engagement rise a new way of employer employee interaction must provide equity in any model which sees the exchange of time and labour for reward. Organisations needs to start to rebuild the trust they once enjoyed from employees.

If the major component of the psychological contract is no longer ongoing job security how will this work? If job security is no longer on offer how will employers rise to the challenge of making work purposeful and meaningful?

Are Employers the Architects of their Own Misery? What do you think?



Befort.S,F. Budd, J, W. (2009) Invisible Hands, Invisible Objectives – Bringing Workplace Law and Public Policy Into Focus. .Stanford Economics and Finance. Stanford. California.

Robinson, S,L. (1996) Trust and Breach of the Psychological Contract. Administrative Science Quarterly. Vol. 41, No. 4. pp. 574-599.

Other Blogs

Unlock your leadership potential today!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletter & stay updated!

You have Successfully Subscribed!