The Difference Between Employee Satisfaction, Engagement, & Experience

employee engagement and the employee experience
The difference between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and the employee experience

What’s the difference between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and the employee experience? All sound like they fit together, but all have key differentiators necessary to an organization’s success.

A well-known business proverb is that a client wants three things from a service provider:  quality, timely service, and a good price. The service provider typically responds in exasperation, “Pick two, because you can’t have all three.” As someone who is both a service provider and a person who hires them, I relate to both sides of the fence. Yet, I don’t think this advice holds true in all instances. Consider these three HR hot buttons:

  1. Employee Satisfaction
  2. Employee Engagement
  3. Employee Experience

In my view, there is no reason why HR leaders cannot deliver stellar results in all employee satisfaction, engagement, and experience. However, it requires a clear understanding of how these areas differ and how they are related.

What is Employee Satisfaction? Are Employee’s Needs Being Met?

Let’s begin with Employee Satisfaction. The Employee Satisfaction definition is to measure whether an employee’s needs are being met at work and how satisfied they are with their overall work experience. The focal point in Employee Satisfaction is on the employee’s individual feelings, positive or negative, about their employment relationship. Thus, Employee Satisfaction is subjective in nature and is internally-focused on an employee’s emotional state of happiness, which is often fleeting.

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What is Employee Engagement? Do Employees Feel Committed?

Employee Engagement differs from employee satisfaction because it goes beyond happiness or those temporary feelings of euphoria and is focused more on commitment.  While it still centers around emotions, the emotions at stake are lasting, and they provide direction and purpose.  My business partner, Dr. Tracy Maylett, has defined Employee Engagement, in my view, better than anyone else:

Download Your Employee Engagement Survey Sample

Employee Engagement is an emotional state where we feel passionate, energetic, and committed toward our work.  In turn, we fully invest our best selves – our hearts, spirits, minds, and hands – in the work we do.

The difference between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and the employee experience

I like his definition because it demonstrates that Employee Engagement is focused on the potential of an employee’s emotional state as opposed to the mere nature and classification of the underlying emotions. His use of the terms “energetic,” “passionate,” and “committed” suggests that engagement is a powerful motivating force and that it compels a person towards positive contributions in the workplace.

There is also something else interesting about Employee Engagement and Employee Satisfaction that he has taught me: sometimes they do not overlap. In other words, engaged employees occasionally lack employee satisfaction, but they remain engaged because they are driven by values that are more important than mere contentment with one’s job. So, when dealing with engagement, it is important to address the drivers of engagement rather than working on employee satisfaction measures.

Perks address happiness, but they fall short in other key engagement themes, such as providing meaning or personal growth opportunities. This is one reason why perks such as Taco Tuesdays might increase employee satisfaction, but they don’t drive engagement forward. Of course, engagement will decline over time if the overall team satisfaction isn’t present, but engagement is typically strong enough to overcome the traditional “bumps in the road.”

These definitions, however, do not explain how the measurement of an employee’s emotional state, whether in terms of employee satisfaction or engagement, relates to an organization’s Employee Experience. This is because they are not the same thing and cannot be compared on an apples-to-apples basis. Discover the difference between employee satisfaction vs employee engagement.

What is the Employee Experience? Are Employee Satisfaction and Engagement Present?

Employee satisfaction and engagement are outcomes of the Employee Experience. What ultimately drives workplace satisfaction and its more powerful cousin, engagement, is the Employee Experience that an organization’s leaders have either designed and built or haphazardly accepted along the way.

Download Your Employee Experience Survey Sample

Our definition of the Employee Experience (EX) is the following:

The Employee Experience is the sum of the various perceptions employees have about their interactions with the organization in which they work.

Distilled to its essence, EX is the organization’s cultural environment that produces those critical employee perceptions, which in turn drive employee satisfaction and engagement (whether good or bad).  A simple way of thinking about EX is that it answers the proverbial question, “What’s it like around here?” Imagine, if you will, a current employee explaining to a recently on-boarded recruit how things work in their department, including the current gossip and the well-trod stories from the past. That’s EX.

What Creates Employee Satisfaction and Engagement?

For years, we have fastidiously measured both employee satisfaction and engagement. We have even learned what themes drive engagement, but we never really stepped back and asked the following question: at a fundamental level, what actually creates these two emotional states of employee satisfaction and engagement. The answer? The Employee Experience.

Okay, so let’s go back to my premise that you can simultaneously improve Employee Satisfaction, Employee Engagement, and Employee Experience. Again, I reiterate – the answer is yes!  You can build all three areas at the same time because it should be evident that you only need to focus on the one independent variable, which is EX. Employee satisfaction and engagement are dependent variables, or outcomes, that ebb, and flow on how well your organization’s EX is functioning.

The difference between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and the employee experience

Of course, this is all fine and well from a theoretical standpoint, but where should a practitioner start? Unfortunately, there is no universal guide on how to build your EX – that’s like saying there is only one way to parent a child. Your EX depends on your organizations’ unique strengths, challenges, needs, and goals.

A simple thought experiment, however, might be of some use. Using my example from above, think about all the questions that might arise as a new employee asks a seasoned veteran for advice on “how things work around here.” What are some of the questions that might come up?

Questions That Might Arise About Your Employee Experience

To get your creative mojo flowing, here are some suggestions to prime the EX pump:

  • Is creativity rewarded around here?
  • Will my boss be mad at me if I make a suggestion?
  • Is there a well-defined chain of command?
  • How long before I must respond to an e-mail?
  • Is the customer always right?
  • Will I be thrown under the bus, and, if so, who’s most likely to do the throwing around here?
  • Will people steal my ideas and claim them as their own?
  • Is it better to come in at 9am and work to 9pm, or could I work from 6am to 6pm because I coach my kid’s soccer team?
  • Is it all about “face time?”
  • When do performance reviews take place?
  • Are performance reviews brutal, or do we not take them very seriously?
  • Is it more important to be on time to a meeting or to actually contribute in the meeting?
  • Is the dress code Dockers and polo shirts or jeans and flip-flops?
  • What if I swear?
  • What if I tell a joke?
  • What if I make a mistake?

Expectation Gaps and The Employee Experience

What is the common element to each of these questions? At their core, they all involve an expectation, whether by the employee or the organization. This observation suggests that a key to a successful EX is to align your employees’ expectations with the organization’s requirements that are crucial to helping the organization win.

You should realize by now that it will take some time to create your list. That’s because your list needs to be hundreds of questions long to be effective. So, keep a notebook handy, and jot down those questions whenever they come – even if it’s in the line at the dry cleaners. Be diligent, and be patient.

After a while, you will see themes start to develop within your questions. As you categorize those themes, you will see those areas that need attention. These are those areas where your employees’ beliefs and what the organization expects are no longer aligned. We call these expectation gaps. The starting point in improving your EX is to close your expectation gaps. When you focus on bettering your company’s EX, employee satisfaction and engagement will also improve because they are a direct result.

Again, this is just the starting point. But, it’s a great place to get going! Don’t delay – things will stay the same or deteriorate if you don’t start focusing on your Employee Experience.  It’s rare, if not impossible, for positive organizational change to occur spontaneously.

For more information on how to build the right EX for your organization and further improve employee satisfaction and engagement, consider reading our most recent book published by WILEY, The Employee Experience, How to Attract Talent, Retain Top Performers, and Drive Results (2017)

If You’re Happy and You Know It

Employee Satisfaction

Employee Satisfaction starts with sleep

In 2017, the Huffington Post reported on a study from the UK of over 8,000 participants, which showed that a good night’s sleep had a greater impact on happiness than a 50% pay increase.[i]  This study illustrates something most of us intuitively know, and that has been researched for decades. Individuals (employees, in our case) must have their basic needs met before they will respond to other factors (big “thumbs-up” here from Abraham Maslow).

The challenge for companies and organizations is understanding the difference between fundamental satisfaction elements (key needs, such as sleep) and trendy employee perks that capture headlines but do little to improve overall employee productivity and satisfaction. As the UK study suggests, if the satisfaction elements are not met (you are not getting something as basic as restful sleep), a pay raise won’t compensate for that loss. The same is true with your job. On-premises dry cleaning and nap pods do not matter if your boss is a jerk, you don’t have a functioning computer, or your leadership team is comprised of three times as many men as women.

Knowing that satisfaction is foundational to a good employee experience, the tendency is for companies to rush out and ask their employees about various satisfaction elements. Yet, a poorly-drafted survey (focused too heavily on the wrong variables) will do more harm than good. Let me explain.

Are Employees Ever Satisfied?

Our DecisionWise database of employee survey responses demonstrates that if you survey a workforce, and ask them about compensation, the organization will always find that employees believe they are underpaid. In fact, our database shows that somewhere between 62% and 68% of employees (depending on the job level) believe that their compensation isn’t reflective of the work they do. Not surprisingly, this isn’t because they believe they are overpaid. Similarly, if you run an employee survey and ask about perks, employees will always ask for more perks.

Thus, companies that ask only about employee satisfaction elements unwittingly create demand where it didn’t exist previously. The survey itself imbues the workforce with the sense they aren’t getting enough. It’s like the old psychological trick, “don’t think about a white bear.” Did it work, or did you think about a white bear when you weren’t before you read that statement? The survey makes a suggestion, whether intended or not, that creates an idea in employees’ head (“I wonder if I’m getting paid enough” or “more perks would be great”) about their level of employee satisfaction. For psychology aficionados, that effect is related to “Ironic process theory,” and it has implications for employee survey design.

More Than Just Employee Satisfaction

So, rather than running a simple employee satisfaction survey (which is more like a suggestion box), our recommendation is to use instead an employee engagement survey or a well-drafted pulse survey. These types of surveys take a more holistic view, measuring satisfaction in addition to other factors. Our experience suggests that by using a broader survey, an employer can alleviate many of the problems associated with a satisfaction-only, suggestive survey. In addition, a wider employee engagement survey has the advantage of providing additional data and insights about the company.

So, if you ask my firm about an “employee satisfaction survey”, you will find that we usually recommend an employee engagement survey for the reasons cited above. We do, however, work with our clients to ensure the following types of questions are included in their employee engagement surveys.

Employee Survey Questions

We have found that these types of questions do a good job of measuring satisfaction elements without creating artificial demand for more pay, paid time off, etc.  Consider the following sample questions:

  • I (the employee) have the tools and resources I need to do my job well.
  • The amount of work I am expected to do is reasonable.
  • The level of stress in my job is manageable.
  • This organization (my company) cares about its employees.
  • My supervisor treats people with fairness and respect.

Notice how these questions measure factors that are more akin to “sleep” (those critical base elements) than questions like, “Do you like granola bars or cookies in the employee pantry?” The latter usually results in employees unanimously saying, “I hadn’t thought about that. Both!”

Also, there are additional cautions to consider. Employee satisfaction should not be measured on a sporadic or haphazard basis. Once you start asking employees to share their experiences with you, a wise organization will continue to do so regularly; at least on an annual basis. Some companies are even using pulse surveys to check-in with their employees more frequently.

Building Employee Engagement

Employee Satisfaction

Unlike employee engagement, employee satisfaction is something that is primarily controlled by the organization. While your employees will help identify gaps, ultimately it is the organization that is responsible for implementing changes when it comes to problem areas within employee satisfaction.

Thus, action planning in the context of employee satisfaction lies primarily with the organization (the top of the organization chart), and you need to be prepared to act or the only thing you will gain from the survey is a lack of trust with your employees. You will soon hear, “See, they asked us, but they don’t really care because they didn’t do anything about it.”

So far, I have only discussed measuring employee satisfaction. The more difficult challenge, however, is how to build and improve satisfaction. Stated differently, how do you motivate your employees to move beyond the basics and truly engage in their work? How do you get them to give their hearts, hands, minds, and spirit to what they do?

The answer to these questions lies in understanding that meaningful employee engagement requires moving beyond employee satisfaction and looking at higher motivating factors, such as creating meaning in one’s work, or giving employees the freedom to decide how their work should be done (autonomy). We refer to these engagement factors as “MAGIC” (Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection).

For more information on these issues and creating ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® in your organization, visit our resources page.

[i] Rachel Moss, The Huffington Post UK, September 9, 2017.

VIDEO: Employee Satisfaction and Engagement. What's the Difference?

Employee Satisfaction vs. Employee Engagement

What are the differences between employee satisfaction and employee engagement?

Employee satisfaction is the extent to which the employment contract is fulfilled. Employees feel satisfied when basic hygiene factors are met. These factors include pay, benefits, job training, safety, and the tools and resources to do the job. Other things that drive satisfaction are perks such as free lunch, day care, or working from home.

Download: Employee Engagement Survey

Satisfaction elements help to attract new employees and retain existing employees. For example, if your company offers the best healthcare benefits in the area, you will probably receive more job applications and employees will be less likely to leave and forfeit their health plan.

Employee satisfaction is very important because it creates the foundation upon which engagement can thrive. Employees must first be satisfied before they can be engaged.
MAGIC - DecisionWise

We define employee engagement as an emotional state where we feel passionate, energetic, and committed toward our work. In turn, we fully invest our best selves—our hearts, spirits, minds, and hands—in the work we do.

The five drivers of employee engagement are Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection. Meaning is finding purpose in the work you perform. Autonomy is having the freedom to do your best work. Growth is feeling stretched and challenged in your job. Impact is about making a difference and getting things done. And Connection is about belonging to something greater than yourself.

So where satisfaction helps to attract and retain employees, engagement also helps with retention but it is the main driver of performance. Engaged employees want to do their best work and deliver results for the company.

Satisfaction is more transactional– you pay me and I do my work- engagement is transformational – where I love my job and want to make a difference.

Both concepts are important. No matter how engaged employees are in their work, if they feel under-compensated, a satisfaction element, their engagement will suffer and they will probably look for other job opportunities.

If you would like to learn how to measure both the satisfaction and engagement levels of your employees, download the DecisionWise employee engagement survey. Thanks for reading or watching and best of luck in your efforts to create an engaging workplace.

Take a look at more videos to assist in building a better organization:

VIDEO: 5 Employee Engagement Best Practices

VIDEO: Employee Satisfaction and Engagement. What’s the Difference?

VIDEO: The Influence of Managers on Employee Engagement

VIDEO: The Impact of 360-Degree Feedback Coaching


Employee Engagement Survey