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International Practice Forum

Alex Alonso
Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

Mo Wang
University of Florida

The date is October 19, 2009 and I (Alex Alonso) walked into my office where I was greeted by the senior vice president of Human Resources at my organization. After overcoming that inexplicable nervous feeling of thinking I was going to be fired, I learned leaders were seeking to establish the organization as one of the best places to work in the Washington DC area. They wanted to engage employees and do everything possible to drive engagement. This sounds easy enough, but we had never measured engagement among the employees. They asked me to identify a vendor to survey employees and to develop a strategy to enhance engagement no matter what the findings were. At this point, I will be honest and say that I was hoping I had been fired. Just kidding.

As all I-Os know, leading an engagement initiative is not easy. Defining the drivers of engagement is critical (Macey & Schneider, 2008), so is measuring these drivers within the context of the organization. Building strategies for enhancing engagement relies upon properly defined measurable drivers of engagement. What no one tells you until you’re caught in the throes of this work is that even if you set the stage from a measurement and strategy perspective, you still need to account for context. Is your organization composed of distinct lines of business? Is your organization employing talent from various cultures? Is your organization a multinational corporation? All of these questions led me to ask: Is employee engagement the same across the globe? You see, my organization was a multinational corporation with more than 23 locations housing a multidisciplinary staff with nine different business lines. At the advice of the vendor, we decided not to conduct engagement benchmarking outside the U.S. because of the possible implications involving drivers of engagement. The solution would be too varied and become unwieldy for implementation. But as a scientist–practitioner, I was left dissatisfied with this approach and logged a mental note: When you have free time, explore cultural differences in employee engagement.

Fast forward to 2012, and I now have the opportunity and venue to explore these issues with the help of my co-columnist, Mo Wang, and a very special contributor, Jay Dorio, PhD, of Kenexa who specializes in engagement solutions in Canada. Dr. Dorio serves as the managing director and executive consultant for Kenexa Canada. As managing director, Dr. Dorio manages the day-to-day operations and financial performance of all Canadian projects and plays a central role in client relations and business development functions. As an executive consultant, Dr. Dorio specializes in survey-based organizational development and change, and helps organizations drive employee engagement to achieve tangible business outcomes. Prior to Kenexa, Dr. Dorio gained extensive experience in both internal and external consulting roles working in a variety of industry segments including hospitality, educational services, manufacturing, and specialty materials, as well as with U.S. military, local, state, and federal government. Dr. Dorio holds a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology from the University of South Florida and a master of education in counseling from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Dr. Dorio is a member of SIOP, Society for Human Resource Management, American Psychological Association, and the Academy of Management.

Some of you may be asking yourselves: Is engagement really different in Canada? The answer may surprise you. Although the concepts are the same, strategies and the operationalization of drivers vary. For the purposes of this column, we have asked Jay to consider how engagement might be the same in definition but different in implementation across borders.

Employee Engagement ≠ Employee Engagement

With today’s dynamic global economic climate, the use of employee engagement surveys has increased steadily. A recent estimate suggests that nearly 90% of large organizations conduct an employee survey of some sort—with engagement playing a key role. To support these surveys, a mountain of research has been conducted illustrating the link between “employee engagement” and key business metrics (e.g., productivity, sales, profit). In fact, this linkage is so well supported that some organizations simply trust the connection between these variables without conducting their own analyses (but we will save that for another conversation).

Despite the prevalence of surveying and the direct linkage to business results, some organizations struggle to identify and focus on the specific factors (“key drivers of engagement”) that are most likely to impact engagement within their own organizations. At Kenexa, we strongly believe that identifying these factors is a critical first step in shifting the conversation from a focus on the transactional elements of the survey itself to the work that takes place after the survey is complete. Without identifying and then taking action on a small number of organization-specific key factors, organizations are much less likely to move the needle on engagement and ultimately impact their business results.
So a key question remains: Are there key differences in engagement levels and the factors that impact engagement across organizations, countries and/or cultural groups (and for this discussion specifically Canada and the United States)?

To help answer this question, we turn to Kenexa’s High Performance Institute (KHPI) and the WorkTrends™ survey (Wiley, Herman, & Kowske, 2011). The WorkTrends™ survey has been conducted since 1984 and currently collects responses from employees within the 12 largest global economies. The WorkTrends™ survey assesses multiple workplace issues and includes an evaluation of employee engagement.

According to the WorkTrends™ survey, employee engagement levels within Canada are consistent with engagement levels in the United States (63% versus 64% favorable respectively). This is not largely unexpected as there are numerous cultural similarities across the two countries and a very strong connection in terms of industrial processes at an overall level. In comparison, both countries score higher than several European countries (e.g., United Kingdom 54%, Germany 55%, Spain 55%).

Utilizing data across the entire WorkTrends™ survey, KHPI employed relative weights analysis to determine the top-10 global drivers of engagement. These are the top-10 factors that are most likely to impact employee engagement regardless of country or organization:

  • Confidence in the organization’s future              
  • Corporate responsibility efforts increase overall satisfaction
  • Organization supports work/life balance             
  • Opportunity to improve one’s skills
  • Excited about one’s work1     
  • Satisfied with recognition
  • Promising future for one’s self               
  • Confidence in the organization’s senior leaders
  • Safety is a priority    
  • Co-workers give their very best1,2

1Not a key driver on engagement within Canada
2Not a key driver within the United States

Interestingly, 8 of these 10 factors were found to be the same across Canada and the United States (e.g., confidence in the organization’s future, promising future, opportunity to improve one’s skills, confidence in senior leaders) suggesting a strong degree of resemblance between the two countries. However, results did identify two unique drivers of engagement that differentiated Canadian from American employees.
First, findings of the WorkTrends™ analysis indicated that for Canadian employees, perceptions of their managers’ effectiveness made a more direct impact on their employee engagement than for employees from other countries. The only other country where “manager effectiveness” specifically made the list of top-10 factors impacting engagement was the UK. Given the historical connection between these two countries, social norms and practices may have followed a similar pattern yielding this result.

This is certainly not to suggest that individual managers are NOT critically important in other countries, only that individual managers and their perceived effectiveness plays a more central role in Canadian employees’ engagement levels than in other countries.

This is a critical distinction to consider when developing action plans for employee populations within Canada. As we know that individual managers are the most direct connection between employees and organizational leadership, organizations operating in Canada are strongly encouraged to ensure that managers have the right capabilities and capacities to effectively lead their teams. Given these results, it is also highly recommended that organizations within Canada critically examine their focus on managers and their manager training programs in order to ensure the successful engagement of their employees.

Another factor that impacts Canadian employees more so than employees from other countries is the perception that their organizations are focused on multiple stakeholders. These stakeholders can include employees themselves but also other groups such as customers and partners in business operations (e.g., vendors). In the land of Lester B. Pearson, the father of universal health care and UN peacekeeping, this is clearly a Canadian specialty.
This factor is likely consistent with a growing focus on corporate social responsibility seen across Canadian organizations. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that not only are perceptions of corporate social responsibility linked to improved employee perceptions of their own organizations (such as engagement) but they also can be effective for recruitment and retention (Dorio, 2011).

These results suggest that considering the impact of organizational functioning on multiple stakeholders (i.e., not only the employees themselves but the communities they live in, the customers they interact with, and the colleagues they work with) can have a direct impact on engagement levels for Canadian employees. Further, given the importance of this factor, it would be prudent for organizations operating in Canada to not only measure employee perceptions of multiple stakeholder issues but also to consider how actions taken could have a multiplicative impact (on employees as well as others).

In summary, research suggests that, although engagement levels between Canada and the United States are similar, there are subtle differences in the key factors that drive engagement that should be considered. Although a global comparison of engagement drivers revealed considerable overlap in the factors impacting engagement across countries, results also illustrated that each country (and typically each organization within that country) has some unique variations on these themes. Consequently, one of the most successful strategies to ensure the continued engagement of employees within individual organizations is to conduct key driver analyses at the lowest level possible (typically at the team level). If organizations can ensure that each and every manager (and his/her team) works on the specific factors that are most strongly related to engagement for their own team, we can ensure optimal levels of employee engagement.

Table 1 provides a summary of best practices for capturing the international nuances in engagement highlighted by Jay. Please use this as a cheat sheet for your own work.

Table 1
Taking Context Into Consideration in Measuring Engagement

1.   Develop a clear definition of engagement based upon important drivers.
2.   Design a strategy for handling cultural differences in engaging employees especially if you are a multinational enterprise.
3.   Take national attitudes on sustainability and other drivers of engagement into account when working with international samples.
4.   Measure engagement across the organization according to corporate structure but implement strategies for engagement across teams and not divisions. Key driver analyses belong at the lowest level possible.

5.   Don’t assume engagement equals engagement across borders.

See You Next Time!

We leave you with this parting thought by Ben Simonton, author of Leading People to Be Highly Motivated and Committed: “‘Turned on’ people figure out how to beat the competition, ‘Turned off’ people only complain about being beaten by the competition.” This underscores the importance of engaging employees to drive competitive advantage. But as we all know, what turns you on may not be the same thing that turns on your colleague in India. Driving engagement at a global level calls for tailoring to all markets and employees no matter how similar they may be. After all, engaging your employees is the process of attracting and reattracting your employees, and it can be as nuanced as attracting a mate. Until next time goodbye, zaijian, and adios!

WE NEED YOU AND YOUR INPUT! We are calling upon you, the global I-O community, to reach out and give us your thoughts on the next topic: environmental sustainability. Give us your insights from lessons learned in your practice. We are always looking for contributors, and we will be on the lookout. To provide any feedback or insights, please reach us by email at the following addresses: mo.wang@warrington.ufl.edu and alexander.alonso@shrm.org.


Dorio, J. M. (2011). How corporate responsibility and environmentally friendly business practices return the investment. Presented at the United Nations Environment Program Financial Initiative (UNEP FI), North American Task Force’s workshop on employee engagement and environmental issues. Toronto, ON. Kenexa® High Performance Institute.
Macey, W. H., & Schneider, B. (2008). The meaning of employee engagement. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 1(1), 3–30.
Simonton, B. (2012). A quote on engaging employees. Retrieved from http://www.causecast.com/blog/bid/223517/Inspirational-Employee-Engagement-Quotes.
Wiley, J. W., Herman, A. E., & Kowske, B. J. (2011). Developing and validating a global model of employee engagement. Wayne, PA: Kenexa® High Performance Institute.