Measuring employee engagement? Care needed!

When leaders in organisations decide to measure employee engagement, they know that it’s a two-edged sword.  There’s been some fevered discussion on LinkedIn in the past few weeks about KPMG’s decision to “stop” measuring employee engagement across its workforce.  Some commentators have been almost vitriolic in their response.  Not at KPMG, but at the poor old employee survey for daring to intrude on their working lives in the way that it evidently has in the past.  They can’t wait to shake the dust of it off their shoes.

Hmmm.  I think they might be crowing too soon over the demise of the annual employee survey. As might KPMG themselves. If you look more closely at the story which appeared in the Australian Financial Review, KPMG’s lead HR transformation partner Bolton talks about replacing the survey with “a new deal diagnostic tool” which looks more specifically at the nature of the deal between employee and employee.  An employment value proposition, in other words.  Now, I have a background in employer branding and in employee engagement.  I also do employee surveys. So I must declare an interest – I am very supportive of these concepts and believe they continue to have value. And the one thing that I am totally confident about is that if an employment value proposition is going to hold water, then it HAS to be based on canvassing employees about what they truly value about their work.  In other words, surveying them for their opinion. If a “new deal” is just based on a top-down, C-suite view of what employees might value, then you might as well pack up and go home. Because that’s what your employees will do sooner or later after you introduce such a package.  Cynicism levels can rocket inside organisations if these initiatives are not carefully handled and employees not genuinely engaged through the process.

And once the “new deal” is constituted and implemented – guess what?!  Employees are going to have to be regularly polled to check whether their experience of the deal matches up to the deal promise.  So some kind of employee survey will continue to stick around, even if it is called something else and conducted less frequently.

There has been a huge amount of research into employee engagement, motivation and performance over the years.  And quite frankly, the jury in research circles is still out on whether performance causes motivation and engagement or vice-versa. Whichever version you support, the key thing to remember is that there is a link between the two.  And qualitative data – as well as quantitative – has validity when you are trying to measure employee engagement.  Clearly, you need to make sure you’ve got your sample size right.  But decrying qualitative data as “not robust” is a bit silly.  We are talking about human beings, after all, who have attitudes, distinct personalities and unique personal histories.  Not widgets.

What I do have some sympathy for amongst the fevered commentators of recent days is their frustration with the genuine impact of the employee survey upon organisations.  This brings us back to the first line of my blog.  Leaders introduce employee surveys in their organisations with the best of intentions.  They do want to know what their employees think about their jobs and working conditions.  But then they get busy doing other stuff.  And once the qualitative data has been collected, analysed and followup action plans drawn up, those same leaders can risk getting egg on their faces if another year has rolled by and nothing has happened since the last survey.  Their employees’ cynicism levels will surely rise again!  It happens all too often. So that’s when the employee survey starts becoming a heavy yoke around the neck of the HR director and the employee comms manager.  And they start resorting to social media to vent their spleen…. Leaders HAVE to take these measurement instruments seriously.  As I said earlier, employee surveys are a two-edged sword.  Reputational risk for the C-suite is very high if they don’t do the promised followup.

What is your view of employee surveys?  How do you think we can make these work better than they currently do?  Love to hear your experience of what works.

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3 thoughts on “Measuring employee engagement? Care needed!

  1. Hi Antonia – thought-provoking stuff… Interestingly both the companies that I’ve worked at in the last year have been obsessed about winning “Best Place to Work” awards and have peppered employees with injunctions to complete surveys, leaving sweeties on desks etc etc. I get the brand-value aspect of winning (and publicising success of winning) such awards, but it is counter-productive to keep pushing employees to say how much they like to work at a company. I got so fed up that I deliberately didn’t complete the survey… As you rightly point out – the two-edged sword has struck…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The trouble with many surveys come from both the nature of the questions and with where the answers reside when complete. So many assume the employees are stupid, that they’re going to fill out the survey and feel better, when they know that the “Committee” will do what all committees do, nothing really stupid, nothing really great, just the average wrong answer.

    A much better approach is when the CEO sponsored the survey and is the one asking the question, yes, only one, and a third party is the recipient of the data and has full authority to fight acceptance/ implementation all the way to the CEO. Also, the question remains open long enough for the employees to actually witness the execution of some of their ideas. If a manager is presented with a good idea and cannot defend continuing it, it must be stopped within two days. Compare that to the traditional approach where no one knows exactly what was accomplished or who made the decisions.

    The approach described here has been in use for 20 years and has been successful each time. In one case the employees (that’s everyone from the janitor to the officers) came up with a $300 million SG&A reduction, a $200 million reduction to the capital plan a $45 million inventory reduction and accomplished all this with a 60% reduction in previously layoffs. All in ten weeks.


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