Who’s Responsible for Employee Engagement?

This last week I was a keynote speaker at a human resources (HR) conference. I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman who made an argument for why HR is not responsible for employee engagement.

You might be wondering how this came up. Often, boards of directors and leadership teams look to and point a finger at HR when employee turnover is high. Many senior leaders expect that HR needs to “own” the employee experience and employee engagement. This kind of conversation always generates great emotions on all sides. After thinking about this conversation more deeply, it is critical that we start this conversation more broadly.

What am I referring to when I say, “employee engagement”? I am referring to the point in time when an employee feels so valued, so listened to, and so respected that they go over and above for their team, their manager and their organization.

Here are five schools of thought regarding who is responsible for employee engagement:

  • Human resources (HR)

The most prevalent opinion is that HR “owns” employee engagement. For those making this argument, they make it mostly for the obvious reason. They are “human” resources. In this argument, they are responsible for anything that goes wrong with any of the employees inside or outside the organization.

To the contrary, the gentleman to whom I spoke at the HR conference argued that employee engagement is not the responsibility of human resources (HR). In his opinion, HR should be focused on tactical things like payroll, benefits and workplace conflict. He further posited that HR doesn’t really have the tools or knowledge base to lead this effort.

While I believe that everyone inside the organization has a role to play in employee engagement, HR must play a leading, or at a minimum, partnering role by virtue of their intimate knowledge of the human capital ecosystem. They must be fully supported in this area. They deserve a seat at the table.

  • Executive leaders (including the board of directors)

Another popular opinion is that the executive leadership team, along with any boards of directors, are the key architects of employee engagement. This position points to the fact that the most senior decisionmakers in an organization navigate the organization in one direction, or another, and determine where to direct resources.

I do believe that the executive leaders in any organization are crucial in employee engagement efforts as they must approve budgets, remove barriers, act in congruence with stated visions and norms and demonstrate high levels of enthusiasm around all efforts. They must also ensure that HR and other stakeholders are empowered to do what is necessary to improve the experiences for employees.

  • Employees

In the work that I do, I often hear the argument that employees are responsible for their own engagement. People who make this argument point to self-reliance in that they believe that employees must create their own happiness, their own positive view of work, and their own opportunities.

There is some validity to this argument, but what is overlooked is the imbalance of power between employees and management. There are many examples of a lack of empowerment, micromanagement that stifles any creative thinking and even sabotage.

Having said that, employee engagement is impossible if employees don’t provide open and honest feedback, aren’t flexible through change initiatives, or they become apathetic and siloed. They are, indeed, the critical piece of the employee engagement puzzle, but cannot fully direct their own experiences.

  • All supervisors and business unit managers

Many believe that employee engagement is the responsibility of the “boss”. I have written extensively about this both in my book, The 7 Intuitive Laws of Employee Loyalty, and in past articles. I do believe that all levels of management drive the kinds of emotions that make employees want to stay or leave an organization. This directly connects to their level of discretionary effort. I will continue to surface additional ways that managers can produce these emotions and drive higher levels of engagement.

For now, we must not leave management out of the employee engagement discussion.

  • Everyone

There is a newer discussion that everyone owns employee engagement-from the janitor, to the supervisor to the CEO to the members of the board of directors. Some may argue that this is a cop-out in that if everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. If no one is responsible, then nothing gets done.

This is a valid point. We need to make sure that there are measurements and accountabilities associated with any employee engagement efforts. If not, it will only be a conversation. We need to be specific about who is responsible for what and how them accountable for results.

My thoughts

While I do believe that managers have the biggest opportunity to create fertile ground for engagement success, employee engagement is not possible unless all stakeholders are bought into the need for it and their roles in it. I think we need to continue to look at all the models and ideas to decide which governance model is best. No matter what, this is not a “one and done” scenario, nor should the good or the bad be placed on the shoulders of one department or person. This a hefty load that must be carried by many.

Please lend your voice to this conversation. Leave a comment with your perspective. Do you feel strongly on one side of the other? Share it with others who can add value.


Heather Younger
Heather Younger
Heather Younger gets it. As a best-selling author, international TEDx speaker, podcast host, facilitator, and Forbes Coaches Council coach, she has earned her reputation as “The Employee Whisperer”. Her experiences as a CEO, entrepreneur, manager, attorney, writer, coach, listener, speaker, collaborator and mother all lend themselves to a laser-focused clarity into what makes employees of organizations and companies – large and small - tick. Heather has facilitated more than 150 workshops, reaching +100 employers and their employees. Her motivation and philosophy have reached more than 20,000 attendees at her speaking engagements on large and small stages. Companies have charted their future course based on her leading more than 100 focus groups. In addition, she has helped companies see double-digit employee engagement score increases through the implementation of her laws and philosophies. She has driven results in a multitude of industries, including banking, oil & gas, construction, energy, and federal and local government. Heather brings a tenacious and inspirational outlook to issues plaguing the workforces of today. Her book “The 7 Intuitive Laws of Employee Loyalty” hit the Forbes Must-Read list and is a go-to source for HR professionals seeking insight into their organization's dynamics. Heather’s writing can also be found on her blog at EmployeFanatix, as well as articles in Forbes, Huffington Post, Thrive Global, American Express Open Forum, and more. Coupled with her Leadership with Heart podcast, weekly videos, and employer newsletters, Heather stays connected to organizations long after she leaves the stage or conference roomWhen all the emails are returned and the mic is turned off, and Heather acts as co-manager of her busy household in Aurora, Colorado with her husband, where they oversee their four children.

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  1. The development of employee engagement has become imperative at all managerial levels, and above all for CEOs, and therefore no longer something to be measured once a year, with the classic Employee Satisfaction Survey, but a business aspect that requires constant monitoring and attention. If executives get involved, invest in staff, focus on a larger purpose, and leave no one behind, resources can be more positive, focused and involved despite any instability or crisis situations. Engagement management starts at the front row. Leaders play a key role in engaging the workforce. The involvement of resources is higher when leaders and their managers have some form of daily communication with their employees, make a combined effort to “know them” and make them feel comfortable talking about any topic and help them personally develop their professionalism. And today, technologies offer different ways to intervene on employee engagement.
    In conclusion, I would say that the HR function must play a facilitator and enabler role by supporting management in the right choices to create a business environment that fosters the development of engagement. This is a joint and shared responsibility between HR and Management.

  2. Its a complex environment. The objective and goal of the HR is employee engagement and development. But, only a limited % of them are able to meet the set goals and the objectives in full. To practically put across, its the commercial and management demands that over power the HR. Due to this the gap between the employee and management increases. Take a simple survey and analyse how many organisations have invited the employees to suggest changes, innovations that can enhance the productivity or the brand image. Instead organisations employs external agencies/people to give suggestions for the problems created by themselves. Organizations have to realize that having a centralized system of HR shall not help and in turn they should have HR designated/personnel at each of the department to understand on the ground conditions and find out the remedies from within and apply unique and individual approach to their varied issues.

    The primary need of the HR is to develop a bond developed through trust and transparency. Yes, there will be the push/pressure from the management, but being neutral is the essence. Management has to understand the need of keeping the flock together by getting into direct interactions with all the levels and not being dependent on HR views which might be diluted or filtered at times to suit the management.

    Do not leave the management or firefighting responsibilities on a particular department and rather management should get involved personally to get the hands on information. If an employee does not find a window to air his grievances, then the option he choose is to find out an EXIT door. Engage with your employees, mid level management with the open heart and transparency.

  3. Yes! As Mary Schaefer pointed out, every person in the work ecosystem is responsible in some way for employee engagement. One aggressive, abrasive employee can damage an entire department.

    In my experience, the biggest obstacle to employee satisfaction in the workplace is leadership that tolerates bad behavior – any person’s bad behavior, whether a supervisor or employee. I find that most supervisors are so uncomfortable with conflict, that they don’t address bullying and aggression, leaving it to the employees to either address it or leave. You cannot have an engaged workforce when you tolerate bullying.

  4. “While I do believe that managers have the biggest opportunity to create fertile ground for engagement success, employee engagement is not possible unless all stakeholders are bought into the need for it and their roles in it… this is not a “one and done” scenario…” – HY

    Hi Heather. I am in violent agreement with you. We do not work/live in a vacuum. In the system that is a work organization, how can everyone NOT be involved and hold a piece of the responsibility around something that touches every aspect of our work together, like employee engagement?

    As you probably have experienced too, if I, in HR, implement a program (related to employee engagement), despite getting sign-off to do so, managers or others can undermine it easily. I’ve often been caught off-guard when this happens. Even if they “buy-in” or “sign-off,” if the person peripheral to the program doesn’t believe they have any responsibility or influence around what we are trying to accomplish, they can undermine it with one word or action.

    Well presented.