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2012 Warwick-Acas Lowry Lecture

Giving the 2012 Warwick-Acas Lowry Lecture to an invited audience of senior HR managers, trade union officials, employment relations professionals and academics, Professor John Purcell identified the limits and the possibilities of the employee engagement practices with which organisations are increasingly experimenting.

The fundamental premise of employee engagement is that of reciprocation, whereby managerial conduct valuing the role of employees in wealth creation is matched with action to maximise employee well-being, leading to positive employee attitudes towards work and the organisation.

These ideas have captured Government's attention, and a Task Force has been commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to identify what works in securing employee engagement, and under what circumstances.

In his lecture, Professor Purcell asks if there is anything new in the concept of employee engagement, and whether it holds the prospect of reclaiming a central role for employment relations in successful management behaviour. The answer, explored in the lecture, is a qualified 'yes', but that significant limitations need to be overcome for the full benefit to be achieved.

Suggestions are made on what needs to be done to achieve the potential of employee engagement. He shows that the real benefit of employee engagement can only be reached once there is an understanding of why a majority of employees are engaged in their jobs and show commitment and affection toward their organisation.

A substantial body of research shows that people want to see justice and fairness at work, especially in the way decisions are made and the way their manager treats them. There is a need for senior managers to give accounts and explanations to employees concerning the big decisions they are taking. Building perceptions of organisational justice is greatly aided when employees have a voice at work, both in their work teams and departments and at senior levels in the company.

Engagement is about trust, and trust has to be earned, contends Purcell, noting that at present many employees do not trust top managers. There needs to be concerted efforts to build employee engagement, and responsibility for that rests with company executives.

The lecture can be viewed here. The lecture is also available to download as a paper in the Warwick Papers in Industrial Relations series.

The annual Warwick-Acas Lowry Lecture is held in honour of the late Sir Pat Lowry who was a former Chair of Acas, a visiting professor at the University of Warwick, a member of Warwick Business School's Advisory Board and a close associate of the Industrial Relations Research Unit (IRRU).