What can Clark Griswold and Buddy the Elf Teach us about Employee Engagement?

Posted by Devin Harris on December 6, 2018

With the Calendar now having turned to December, my thoughts turn to Christmas, and more specifically my family’s tradition of watching (and re-watching) Christmas movies!  But before it’s time to settle in by the fireplace with some eggnog to watch some old favorites, I thought it might be interesting to ponder what we can learn from some of these classics about one of the hottest topics in HR right now – Employee Engagement.

Employee Engagement. The subject of many whitepapers, analyst publications, surveys, webinars – even TED talks!  Unfortunately, however, despite this spotlight and its importance to critical business outcomes, it is a concept that is wildly misunderstood.

Contrary to popular belief, certain emotions or actions do not define or equate to employee engagement. Nor do happiness / job satisfaction, contentment with working conditions, showing up for work, an engaging UI or using software (that’s adoption).  The issue is that while these factors can be positive markers, they do not go beyond the surface level to create a lasting, meaningful connection.  Employees that are simply content or present may still be susceptible to leaving for a competitor to gain a small pay increase or an extra week of vacation.

So, we know what Employee Engagement is not…well, then what is it?

Employee Engagement is a “Psychological State”, a persistent mindset characterized by high levels of commitment, enthusiasm, involvement and empowerment with the work and the organization. An “Engaged” state goes beyond mere satisfaction with employment or basic loyalty to the employer. Engagement connotes action / activation, whereas satisfaction connotes being content / satiated. Behaviors typical of engagement include:

  • Putting in extra time
  • Increasing work intensity
  • Going beyond normal
  • Doing things smarter
  • Increasing initiative
  • Investing more of oneself
  • Doing a wider range of tasks
  • Being proactive
  • Being adaptable

ClarkGrizzClark Griswold,“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”
Copyright: Warner Bros. 

In the movie “Elf”, Buddy, (played by Will Ferrell) is extremely engaged in Christmas. Similarly, Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase) in “National Lampoons Christmas Vacation” displays a high degree of engagement in the holiday season.

Buddy the Elf, “Elf”
Copyright: New Line Cinema

Throughout Buddy’s trip to New York City to meet his biological father and Clark’s mission to make Christmas special for his family, we see classic hallmarks of engagement:

  • Commitment. Buddy goes beyond normal, making it his personal mission to spread Christmas cheer and is unwavering in his love of all things Santa, winter and the holiday season. Clark Griswold shows significant intensity and initiative, spending numerous evenings decorating the family’s house with 25,000 lights (shorting out the power in half of Chicago in the process).

CG_LightsCopyright: Warner Bros. 

  • Involvment. Upon hearing that Santa Claus is coming to Gimbels department store, Buddy puts in extra time, pulling an all-nighter to decorate it for his arrival. When Clark learns that Cousin Eddie doesn’t have any Christmas gifts for his children, he insists on purchasing some for them, demonstrating his adaptability and investing more of himself.
  • Enthusiasm. Buddy shows his ability to complete a wider range of tasks, winning over his half-brother Michael by helping him convincingly win a snowball fight against some bullies. Wanting a special tree for the family home, Griswold plans a road trip to deep in the forest rather than settling for a basic one from a lot.

Copyright: New Line Cinema

  • Empowerment. After Santa’s sleigh crashes in Central Park, Buddy takes charge and helps fix it so that Christmas is not ruined. Clark puts in extra time and discretionary effort at work on a new formulation (so that cereal will stay crunchy in milk).

I could go on about Buddy the Elf and Clark Griswold forever, but circling back to the world of work, why should business leaders care about engagement?

In short, because it has been proven across multiple studies and organizations that companies with engaged workforces outperform their competition. Companies with the most engaged employees have improved customer metrics, stronger corporate citizenship, less regrettable turnover, increased innovation, higher earnings per share and reduced absenteeism. This leads to more productivity (~17%), higher sales (~20%) and profits (~21%) and improved customer metrics (~10%).  In the eternal quest to outperform the competition (or execute the perfect Christmas), any improvement in engagement is absolutely critical to impact results.

But what can be done to impact employee engagement? That is surely a topic worthy of its own discussion; if only it was as easy as they make it look in the movies! I would encourage you to check out a recent webcast, “Beyond Transactions, Beyond Apps: A Day in the Life of an Engaged Organization”. A few other resources of interest include this Forbes article and various engagement related eBooks, videos, infographics and Lightpapers that can be found here.

P.S. I am not going to weigh in on whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not…



Devin Harris, Senior Marketing Manager at Vibe HCM has worked closely with the strategic benefits of employee-focused workforce technology for over 14 years. Most recently, (when he is not watching cheesy Christmas movies), he is interested in examining the business outcomes that organizations can achieve by deploying HCM Engagement platforms.


New Line Cinema

State of the Global Workplace, Gallup 2017
Warner Bros.




1.800.320.9530 | 1.574.970.4400

Support: generalsupport@vibehcm.com