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Employee Experience: Demystifying the Terminology

Employee Experience is a minefield of terminology. In this blog we clear up some related terms, including Employee Engagement, Employer Brand and EVP.

Employee Experieence, Employee Engagement , Employer brand, EVP: What's the difference?

And does it even matter?

If you’re interested in people management in any way, you’ll come across many related and overlapping terms such as Culture, Employee Experience, Employee Engagement, Employee Value Proposition (EVP), and Employee Brand. Frankly, this much HR terminology can be confusing, irritating and offputing.

Are they all the same thing, and does it even matter? Let’s take a closer look.

Employee Engagement

Employee Engagement is on one hand one of the most popular topics in HR, and on the other it’s one of the most confusing. This is because there are so many definitions and models, many of which have been developed by consulting firms and engagement survey providers. This means that they generally haven’t been tested and scrutinised in the way that academic models are.

What is Employee Engagement?

A simple definition of Employee Engagement is that it’s the emotional and behavioural commitment of an employee to their work and success of the organisation. This, at least, is typically what’s measured in engagement surveys.

But there's a huge disconnect between the commercial world of employee surveys and the academic world that conducts published, peer-reviewed research. Since the first use of the term 'Employee Engagement' commercial survey providers have focused on a definition that focuses on the relationship between the employee and the organisation (and to some degree their work), while most of the research has focused on definitions that focus on the relationship between the employee and their work.

You might not care about these differences. But they do matter, because we look tend to look to academic research to build robust frameworks and models that give us confidence that what we're measuring is really what we think we are, and that we're doing it accurately.

CIPD's Definition of Employee Engagement

The CIPD, in response to the wide range of defintions and models of Employee Engagement, reviewed the available evidence and suggest treating Employee Engagement as: An “umbrella term describing a broad area of people strategy, and referring to narrower constructs – such as work engagement or organisational commitment – when you need to be more specific”.

vs Engage for Success's definition

The influential Engage for Success think tank (that grew out of the UK Government-sponsored Engaging for Success or ‘MacLeod’ Report) also take a broad brush approach, defining employee engagement “as workplace approach resulting in the right conditions for all members of an organisation to give of their best each day, committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, with an enhanced sense of their own well-being”.

The CIPD and Engage for Success both offer broad definitions of employee engagement

The academic perspective

In a review of the research on Employee Engagement, Bailey et al (2017) suggested that the various definitions of engagement can be grouped under six main headings.

Of these, the most widely research are focused more on personal (or role) engagement (e.g. Kahn, 1990) or work engagement (e.g. Schaufeli et al, 2002) and not on the attitude or commitment of the employee to the organisation.

Despite these challenges, Employee Engagement is considered to be important and useful. It’s important, however, not to accept models and measures of engagement without question. Because of these challenges, our point of view is similar to the CIPD's. We see Employee Engagement as something broad and holistic, hence the "People Experience".

Employer Brand

Another widely used term in HR is Employer Brand. But..

What is Employer Brand?

According to the CIPD, Employer Branding is “the way in which organisations differentiate themselves in the labour market, enabling them to recruit, retain and engage the right people.” So, it’s an image that an organisation deliberately cultivates and projects – though like other brands, like your favourite consumer brands, to be effective the promise need to match the reality.

Although a strong Employer Brand should, in principle, lead to Employee Engagement, it’s aim is slightly different. Just as great branding can add economic value to an otherwise fairly standard product, a great Employer Brand should ultimately help organisations to compete for talent, perhaps reducing the premium they pay to attract people, reduce recruitment costs, and increase retention.

Check out Unilever’s current Employer Brand: You are more than your job title, which is centered around being part of “the world’s most successful, purpose-led business”:

Employee Value Proposition

So what is an EVP?

The Employee Value Proposition (or EVP), “describes what an organisation stands for, requires and offers as an employer” (CIPD), and is also referred to as “the deal”.

So, just like a business’s (marketing) value proposition, which describes what the customer will get in return for their money, it describes what what employees can expect from their employer (e.g. in experiential or cultural terms, reward, benefits, development) and vice versa. This can be defined at an overall level, or for segmented groups. It’s two-way deal, closely related to the psychological contract, that distinguishes the EVP from the Employer Brand.

The aim of the EVP may not radically different from the Employer Brand, but if done well it inherently involves dialogue and has the added benefit of clarifying expectations on both sides. An Employer Brand is a reflection of things that you offer or have done to make the organisation more attractive, but the EVP is more internally focused. An EVP should be honest (“we can’t pay market leading salaries but we can offer…..”), whereas your Employer Brand is about presenting your best self. It requires a good understanding of your employees and their needs, as well as the business needs.

Some people describe an EVP in terms of its component parts, such as development, compensation and benefits, culture and so on; while others will emphasise the emotional or experiential aspects of the EVP. However, for it to do its job effectively these have to come together.

Unilever’s EVP, described by Anuradha Razdan (VP HR) on the Linkhumans podcast, develops the purpose-led theme further: Unilever's Employee Value Proposition or EVP as described by Anuradha Razfdan on the Linkhumans podcast

Employee Experience (EX)

Last but not least, Employee Experience (EX) is a term that has exploded in recent years. Josh Bersin, HR industry analyst wrote recently that “Employee Experience has become a crusade. Every HR and IT department is focused on it, and the marketplace has exploded.”

What is Employee Experience?

The Employee Experience tends to refer to the deliberate design of the interactions that an employee has with their employer, and how those feel, over the course of their employment. We prefer to use the term ‘People Experience’ for two main reason.

First, not all of your ‘people’ are employees. You may need to manage self-employed workers or volunteers, for example. Second, the word ‘employee’ implies people other than management and it sounds a bit ‘them and us’.

In November 2018 the CIPD, HR’s professional body in the UK, removed Employee Engagement from its profession map and replaced it with Employee Experience, saying: “Employee experience is about creating a great work environment for people. It involves understanding the role that trust plays in the employment relationship and making sure people are listened to and have a voice in issues that impact them.”

While the EVP is about articulating the ‘deal’, the Employee Experience is about deliberately designing an environment and a set of experiences. It’s a step back from both Employer Brand and EVP, in that designing and delivering a great Employee Experience allows you to articulate what makes your brand or proposition unique and special.

Hmm. Are they fundamentally different?

So What? For us it ALL boils down to ‘experience'.

Employee Engagement, Employer Brand, EVP and Employee Experience – are terms that are, understandably, often used synonymously because there is a lot of overlap between them. What’s common to all of them is understanding what’s important to your employees, what motivates them and how they feel, and doing so in the unique context of your business. We see this last point being overlooked too often.

Each of these ideas or activities has its place, but our point of view is that is all boils down to the Employee Experience (or People Experience). It’s people’s experience of work that drives engagement, makes your Employer Brand valuable and makes the EVP feel fair.

Another what of looking at is is that the employee experience could be seen as a three dimensional shape. Then EVP and Employer Brand perhaps just represent a particular view of it that we might be focusing on at a point in time. And engagement is just an outcome. But not the only outcome. I mean, does it really say much about creativity, teamwork or a positive desire for change as outcomes? This, for me, is where the concept needs to be developed further.

But what about culture?

Just when we thought we’d made things clearer…

All of this stuff that we might describe as the designed employee experience, is also ‘culture work’ in my view. It’s just the sharp edge; what Edgar Schein might describe as the “artefacts”, the visual structures, and processes that people experience every day and either reinforce the basic assumptions and values that drive the business, or attempt to change how people see, feel about and behave in the organisation.

Just as culture and strategy need to be aligned to work effectively in support of each other; the experience that an employee has from day to day needs to reinforce both the desired culture and the strategic vision and mission of the organisation.

I think that ultimately what’s important is that, within your own organisation, you know what you’re trying to achieve and why. If you’re going to use terminology to label that activity, the label itself is less important unless, of course, it becomes something that confuses rather than creates clarity.

Which, of course, it often does!

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