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The Critical Role of the Annual Employee Engagement Survey

A response to misconceptions that it’s time to get rid of employee surveys.


On August 1st, the Wall Street Journal published an article in the business section by Peter Cappelli titled: It’s time to get rid of employee surveys. We have seen opinions like this be expressed in the past and with this new widely publicized article we feel we need to respond and educate.

 With much respect for Mr. Cappelli and others who share his opinion, it is crystal clear to us that Mr. Cappelli, and those others, have never participated in, or been witness to a really well-executed employee survey process. Since WSA has over 100 years of combined experience successfully providing employee survey content, research, and consulting, we feel the need to set the record straight.

First, a few quick corrections. Many of our most successful employee survey processes start with a survey of between thirty and forty items and can be completed in about five to seven minutes. Some can be as short as twenty-five items. Across all our engagement survey projects our average participation rate is consistently above 80% and almost never the 50% stated in the article. With this level of participation, companies can have high confidence that the results will be truly representative.

In my forty years of helping companies conduct employee surveys, I have never witnessed the type of breach of anonymity that Mr. Cappelli refers to. Of course, managers want to know who said what, but a good system prevents them from getting individual responses. I found this criticism particularly interesting in that one of his suggested alternatives essentially involved spying on employees. Also, if he is really concerned about gathering representative data why would he ever recommend spying on email and slack messages, let alone Glassdoor, which has an exceptionally negative bias by design.

I can agree with the author on one point—the unfortunate way some companies go about surveying employees.  When they fail to use the appropriate science and conduct minimal, if any, follow-up, it makes it easy to cite meaningless and highly ineffective survey projects. Employee surveys, like any other important initiative, will fail without the visible backing of leadership. We’ve found that this misuse of the employee engagement process usually comes from the company using the same techniques and science they use to listen to their customers to listen to their employees.  This inevitably leads to misleading and even counter-productive findings.

Employees aren’t like customers. Customers are buyers. When we, as buyers, are spending our hard-earned money, we seek perfection. We want it all, and until we find it, we are still shoppers, and not committed customers. We may really like nine out of ten of the attributes of a new product, but if we find another product that has all ten, we don’t even think twice about jumping ship.

Employees, on the other hand, are sellers. Sellers, by definition, have to give something up—to compromise—to sacrifice something. Employees are selling their time, effort, and energy to their company. If they want the paycheck, they understand it requires sacrifices in other parts of their lives. But even more importantly, if they want the sense of pride, accomplishment, and satisfaction that comes from a meaningful and successful career, they know they have to sacrifice even more.

So why is this so relevant and important? Over the years I can hardly count how many executives I have heard say something like this—Why should I survey my employees? I already know what they want. They want to work less and get paid more. And guess what? If you just ask what they want the most, as you would a customer, this is precisely the answer you are most likely to receive. Better pay and better work-life balance are almost always high on the wish list of employees. These factors will almost always be overrepresented if the employee survey and analysis is conducted just like the customer survey. This is particularly problematic when you consider this fact—never in the history of human enterprise has a company risen to greatness by merely increasing payroll as a percent of revenue and lowering hours and expectations to reduce stress.

I found it particularly interesting that Mr. Cappelli just assumed that people working in a children’s hospital would naturally be more engaged than financial managers, for example. We have found so many cases of both highly engaged and highly disengaged workforces in virtually every industry.  To the extent that industry differences in engagement do exist, robust benchmarks can put these differences into perspective.

I once served as the survey researcher and consultant for what is now, the best children’s hospital in the Midwest. There was a nursing shortage at the time, and they had gone through some difficult changes. The engagement scores of this hospital’s workforce were the lowest in our exceptionally large database of companies. In this study, if we had only relied on the responses from the open-ended comments, we would have been forced to conclude that engagement was being destroyed from work-related stress and a lack of work-life balance. However, the science revealed that there were other, much more actionable, factors that were having a very significant impact on engagement. Among these factors, two, in particular, stood out: 1) the employees felt underappreciated and therefore misunderstood, and, 2) the employees had lost confidence in the future success of the organization. Addressing the work-life balance issue would have been excessively expensive in the midst of a nursing shortage. Temps and travel nurses cost a lot. And what we have learned about work-life balance is that, at best, it can only lessen disengagement. It is never a key factor in creating a highly engaged and productive workforce.

The leadership took on the future vision issue and found occasion to enthusiastically share their ambitious plans for the future with all employees. They also got everyone to rally around the ‘underappreciated’ issue and they made a great plan. Long story short, the only expense was some printing charges for what they called star cards. The plan was much more extensive than this, but by relying on the science, and calling out the creativity of their leaders, they made the single biggest jump in engagement in one year than we had ever seen. Over the course of the next three years, they went from worst to first in our database and became known as the best hospital to work for in the area—eliminating staff shortages and long shifts.

If, as stated by Mr. Cappelli, your workforce has dissatisfaction with things like food quality in the cafeteria, there may well be better ways to investigate the problem than an employee survey. Such as having the executive team eat the cafeteria food for a week and then discuss. Pretty simple, but it just might work.

The truth is the quality of food in the cafeteria hardly ever affects engagement. From our former database at Kenexa, of over 22 million employees, we have identified the six most likely drivers of employee engagement globally. There are literally hundreds of strategies for addressing the issues that are most likely to impact the level of motivation, commitment, and conscientiousness across the workforce. How could leaders and managers possibly know from this extensive list of possibilities how to prioritize and identify the factors and strategies most likely to have the most impact within their unique workforce? The right science can help them know this precisely.

I agree that many so-called measurements of employee engagement are just plain flawed. Some set too low of a bar to be helpful. Others include items that confuse the research instead of clarifying it. For example, items asking employees to rate discretionary effort always muddle the science and conclusions. Employees simply aren’t objective when rating the effort of themselves and others. And when people are disengaged, their jobs just feel like they demand much more effort, further confusing the results. Discretionary effort is arguably one of the most important outcomes of engagement, but it is a terrible measurement. You have to use the right items. The words matter. However, engagement is not a vague concept as stated in the article. Simply put, engagement is all those activities that managers and leaders can influence that cause their employees to want to work harder, stay longer, and care more. Motivation, retention, and contentiousness conscientiousness —that’s what engagement is all about. If your engagement survey doesn’t include an index that correlates to and drives workforce performance, then it isn’t engagement that you are measuring.

Employees have made the bargain that sellers always make—that they will give up some things and make some sacrifices for what they want even more. How can leaders ever know what to address from all the actionable alternatives? What is most important from a long list of improvement opportunities that include issues such as communication, recognition, support, development, learning, involvement, belonging, purpose and meaning, accountability, trust, confidence, mission, coaching, listening, inspiring, clear expectations, diversity and inclusion, caring, and many other variations of like factors? These can all be issues that really impact productivity and commitment and every organization is unique and different. Usually, several of them matter significantly, but you can’t effectively address everything at once, and you cannot know which matter the most unless you do the research and rely on the science to give you the best options of where to focus. There are literally hundreds of strategies to address these frequent high priority issues. How will you ever know which ones to focus on? Again, the best science, if applied appropriately, can tell you. Mr. Cappelli, I invite you to learn what works. Call me.

Bill Erickson, Co-Founder, Workforce Science Associates

Bill has played a key role in building and studying great companies for over 40 years. His early background in psychology and education prepared him for his introduction to the corporate world. After fifteen years as Executive Vice President of the Gallup Organization, he was a founder of Human Resource Innovations later to become Kenexa. Before Kenexa was acquired by IBM in 2012 it had quickly become, by far, the largest provider of employee research.

While serving as Vice Chairman of Kenexa, among his many executive responsibilities was his consistent leadership in directing executive-level consulting and thought leadership. Bill is uniquely qualified as an HR thought leader having played critical roles in building and transforming great organizations while directing a massive body of innovative research on workforce performance. He is a highly rated speaker/presenter whose audiences also benefit from his many insights learned from studying elite talent ranging from superstars in the NBA, NHL, and NFL as well as some of the very best managers and leaders at every level from the front line to the C Suite. Bill is currently a founding member of Workforce Science Associates (WSA).




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