“Understanding the HR-Performance link through employee engagement: an integrative review
and research agenda”
Betty Frino* and Raymond Markey
Centre for Workforce Futures
Faculty of Business and Economics
Macquarie University
[email protected]
Abstract
Purpose
Understanding the impact of human resource management (HRM) practices and policies on
performance remains at the core of scholarly research in HRM. However, inconclusive results and
lack of theoretical development have motivated researchers to think beyond existing boundaries.
Early studies exploring the HRM-performance link focused on the influence of macro level factors
(such as organisational policy, procedures, strategy, structure), proposing a direct or linear
relationship. Interest is moving towards the micro level of analysis (Godard, 2004). The
motivational, cognitive and behavioural attributes in High Performance Work Systems (HPWS) have
drawn HRM scholars towards the construct of employee engagement, due to its acclaimed positive
impact on organisational performance and individual wellbeing (Paauwe, 2009; Truss, Shantz, Soane,
Alfes, & Delbridge, 2013). Employee engagement data now form part of the growing portfolio of an
organisation’s HR ‘metrics’ (Arrowsmith & Parker, 2013), where company HR strategies and
practices are also evaluated in relation to achieving an engaged workforce.
Employee engagement faces its own challenges. The construct lacks consistency in its meaning,
measurement tools, and theoretical framework, due partly to its multidisciplinary nature. Disciplines
operate in isolation from each other, using their own methods for observation and analysis. Attempts
at making comparisons or applying the ideas and findings from discrete disciplines become difficult,
consequently stalling advances in research. Consequently, there is no uniform or compelling research
that identifies the key factor(s) that make workers engaged.
The aim of this theoretical paper is twofold:


to conduct a multidisciplinary review of the research on employee engagement that will
provide cohesion for the autonomous literatures; and
to identify possibilities for incorporating research methods and findings from alternate
disciplines into the HRM discipline;
This paper enters newfound territory by reviewing existing research across multiple disciplines,
creating common ground, and an integrated conceptualisation of engagement that will be most
relevant for research and practice in the HRM field. Suggestions for future research and implications
for HR practice are also discussed.
Design/methodology/approach
Frino and Markey
“Understanding the HR-Performance link through employee engagement”
1
An integrative review of the engagement literature is the main method of research. The review is
essential at this stage, given its multidisciplinary reach and the recent interest from HRM. Aside from
Kahn’s seminal work (Kahn, 1990), research on engagement has been most prolific over the past 1015 years. The majority of the literature is grounded in the established field of Organisational
Psychology (OP), with emerging inquiry from HRM scholars (Alfes, Shantz, Truss, & Soane, 2012;
Arrowsmith & Parker, 2013; Robinson, Perryman, & Hayday, 2004; Truss et al., 2013). This
integrative review will predominantly focus on research over this 15 year period, with a particular
focus on Organisational Psychology and HRM. Attention is given to research findings and
methodologies used.
Key findings
The review has uncovered employee engagement’s potential as the new approach to best practice
HRM, providing a novel platform to inform future research on the HR-performance link (Truss et al.,
2013; Wright, Gardner, & Moynihan, 2003). Its role as a mediator between HRM and performance
has surfaced (see for example Alfes et al., 2012; Alfes, Truss, Soane, Rees, & Gatenby, 2013). In a
similar vein, the HRM discipline has much to offer the engagement literature, through its different
perspective and approach to research.
The review also identified several limits of existing engagement research. Firstly, there is little
evidence of cross disciplinary research. Given engagement’s multidisciplinary reach, the paper calls
for more cross disciplinary research in engagement, as it has the potential to combine a range of
research methods and focal points that will offer new ideas, deepen the knowledge base, and enrich
our understanding of employee engagement and HRM’s role in delivering performance.
Secondly, research to date is mostly quantitatively driven, relying mostly on cross-sectional survey
data. Supplementing quantitative data with a qualitative and longitudinal analysis is likely to enhance
engagement research. Thirdly, most studies use the individual employee as the focal point, using one
single line of inquiry, with little consideration of the workplace environment or context. This is a
common approach adopted by OP scholars within the engagement literature (Truss et al., 2013). This
paper advocates greater emphasis on contextual factors and workplace dynamics in order to
understand which (combination of) factors impact on employee engagement, and how this translates
to improved performance. The HRM discipline has much to offer in this regard with its focus on
issues using a broader perspective, giving more consideration to workplace dynamics, practice,
policies, and output (Watson, 2010).
Practical implications (if applicable)
This paper advocates the need to bridge the science-practice link. This was rare in the formative years
of engagement research (Welbourne, 2007). If properly constructed, research findings on engagement
can inform HR policy and practice to create and operationalize engagement initiatives designed to
improve performance and employee wellbeing (Macey & Schneider, 2008; Purcell, 2014; Shuck &
Wollard, 2010).
References
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“Understanding the HR-Performance link through employee engagement”
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Key findings