Employee engagement is defined as an employee's connection to their work, company, management, clients or customers, and is the cornerstone of effective performance. According to the Gallup Group, employee engagement is the strategic foundation upon which top-performing international companies conduct business.
Engaged employees are more productive, more likely to stay with their employers, report higher levels of satisfaction and make significant contributions. Employee engagement differs from employee satisfaction in that employee satisfaction indicates how happy the employee is with the company, his/her particular job, coworkers, and the work environment. To increase engagement levels, employers should be mindful of the needs and concerns of their employees and how to make them feel fully supported in the workplace. As a fundamental component of human resources capacity, engagement can take the form of feedback, career development, or strong leadership.
How Does Disability Fit into Employee Engagement?
The inclusion of employees with disabilities is an important element of an engaged workforce. Approximately 36 million people report having a disability, making disability one of the largest minority groups in the country and one that anyone can join at any time. According to the Council for Disability Awareness, more than one in four 20-year-olds will become disabled before they reach retirement age. Visit EARN's Disability Prevalence page for more information.
Increased Productivity & Higher Returns
Employees who are engaged with their workplace are more likely to be productive at their jobs. According to AON Hewitt , a human capital consulting and outsourcing solutions provider, employees are engaged when they, "say, stay and strive." This means they can speak positively about the company to outsiders, are dedicated to staying with their employer, and are motivated by their organization's values, culture, managers, and leaders to go above and beyond what is expected of them to contribute to the success of their business.
The Human Capital Institute measures the cost of disengagement and the benefits of employee engagement as:
- Fully engaged employees - 120% return of their salary in value
- Engaged employees - 100% return
- Somewhat engaged employees - 80% return
- Disengaged employees - 60% return
Decreased Absenteeism & Improved Retention
According to the Disability Management Employer Coalition, employers who were most effective in reducing absenteeism and improving retention exercised practices that depicted a positive corporate culture that reinforced trust, equity, openness and involvement. These practices are also major determinants of employee engagement. These practices include:
- Improving employee awareness of benefits and services
- Providing fair compensation
- Conveying to the employee that the organization has a compelling mission
- Employing managers who are perceived as credible and ensuring that employees are treated respectfully and equally
- Fostering employee commitment to their organization and their jobs
Improving engagement of employees with disabilities involves the same human resource practices that foster diversity and effective management.  Specifically, effective performance management is an integral part of talent management and is regarded by human resources experts as a key component of employee engagement. Employee resource groups, effective accommodations, and supportive management promote an inclusive work culture that helps employees feel fully engaged in the workplace.
1. Effective Performance Management
Employees with disabilities are like any other group, and should be treated equitably and led by managers who are credible and respectful. Effective managers use strategies that include:
- Establishing a performance framework - Managers should provide clear expectations, demonstrate a thorough understanding of an employee's skills and abilities to accomplish their goals, and offer appropriate resources to do so.
- Providing feedback that focuses on the employee's strengths (and less on faults) - Focusing on what an employee does well will help a manager identify the conditions in which employees can maintain or replicate high performance.
- Getting to know employees as individuals on a one-on-one basis - Effective relationships between managers and the employees facilitate an understanding of expectations, performance standards, and resources needed to ensure engagement and productivity. (Human Capital Institute)
2. Management Training
For managers to be effective in understanding engagement of employees with disabilities, it may be necessary to provide training. EARN, among other organizations, provides training on disability awareness, recruitment and diversity inclusion practices to help employers and their front-line managers create an effective workplace environment. For additional information on workplace diversity across enterprise, see Leading Practices on Disability Inclusion.
3. Mission Alignment
Employees who are fully engaged also view their goals and values as being in alignment with the overall mission of the company or organization. Managers are in a strategic role to convey the company's overall mission and to help employees in recognizing shared values. Thus, employers have an incentive to build their organization's reputation for social responsibility not only for their target markets, but also for their own employees. Towers Perrin  lists "social responsibility" as being one of the top ten drivers of employee engagement. Managers will also need to work with their supervisees in aligning their professional development goals with the overall goals of the company.
4. Employee Resource Groups
Employers who actively engage their workforce often provide workplace supports. One such support is an Employee Resource Group (ERG) which provides an interactive forum for employees to network, address common workplace issues, and receive support from those who share similar backgrounds, experiences, or interests. ERGs may be formed to support employees with disabilities, or other groups, such as Hispanic, LGBT, Veterans, or other employee groups.
5. Advancement and Development Opportunities
Like any employee, workers with disabilities need to receive adequate opportunities for advancement at all levels within an organization. To include employees with disabilities in advancement opportunities, employers must recognize and understand that staff development and mentoring need to be accessible and available and all employees should be encouraged to participate in programs that lead to promotion.
To maximize employee performance, employers need to engage their workforce to improve productivity, creativity and loyalty. Because of the prevalence of disability, most employees will have a personal experience with disability and have a need for more knowledge and a greater understanding of disability issues in the workplace. Employers who engage their workforce will increase their talent intelligence by maximizing human capital and implementing innovative engagement strategies.
 Albrecht, S. L. (2010). Employee Engagement: 10 key questions for research and practice. In E. Elgar, Handbook of employee engagement: perspectives, issues, research and practice (pp. 3-19). Northamton, MA: Cheltenham, UK.
 Berger, L., & Berger, D. (2011). The Talent Management Handbook: Creating a Sustainable Competitive Advantage by Selecting, Developing and Promoting the Best People, 2nd Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
 Towers Perrin. (2007-2008). Closing the Engagement Gap: A Road Map for Driving Superior Business Performance. Retrieved May 18, 2012, from Towers Perin: http://www.towersperrin.com/tp/getwebcachedoc?webc=HRS/USA/2008/200803/GWS_Global_Report20072008_31208.pdf
Macey, W., Schneider, B., Barbera, K., & Young, S. (2009). Employee Engagement: Tools for Analysis, Practice, and Competitive Advantage. Malden, MA: Wiley.
Business & Disability: Integration of People with Disabilities<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeUQuuI_p7w>
This video, featuring Randy Lewis, Senior VP of Distribution and Logistics at Walgreens, discusses improved employee engagement as a result of a disability inclusive program at a distribution center.
This article by the Department of Employment and Economic Development of Minnesota explains how employees with disabilities can improve overall employee engagement at your organization and create an inclusive culture.