Take Two Aspirin and Complete this Engagement Survey

3 Feb

I seem to be doing this a lot recently, but let me start this missive with a disclosure: I am a consultant who earns his living helping companies conduct employee engagement surveys. I’ve also been conducting research in this field for over thirty years. Although some might not consider it a profession, I do. In fact, I’m honored to do this work. I cannot imagine doing anything else. I dig this work. I’m passionate about it.

Heck, you might even call me engaged.


The firm where I work has an extensive wellness program-a wonderful benefit. As part of that program I just had my cholesterol and blood pressure checked. Medical science has shown that test results such as these are reliable indicators of important aspects of our health. They’re not perfect, but the results of those tests can give us a generally sound idea of whether, for example, we’re headed for a heart attack or stroke. And if those numbers are out of range we can take actions to address the underlying problems related to our health.

I’m really glad we have those measures of our health.

One could call them leading measures of our health. They tell us something about our health before we have a problem. For my money, it’s best to know those indicators now to prevent a heart attack before it happens. Kindly keep this idea in mind as I respond to a recent post by Paul Hebert. Please read the post in full at Incentive Intelligence, and then we’ll continue.


Welcome back.

To begin, Mr. Hebert says we may not need a survey to tell us how engaged a workplace is, because we have good metrics like employee retention or profits that can guide us.

There’s no question that measures like employee retention or profits are indicators of an engaged workforce. In my view, however, they are lagging indicators. Having employees leaving a company in droves, for example, tells you a lot about the quality of the workplace. Although accurate, do we really want to wait for the “corporate heart attack” of a mass exodus to tell us whether employees are engaged?

As we say in Nebraska, this would be a case where the cow would already be out of the barn.

Most of our clients want information about employee perceptions before they do something like leave the company, which is why a well designed employee engagement survey process can get to the core of employee issues so something can be done.

Additionally, metrics like employee turnover, when it comes to employee engagement, are crude and rudimentary at best. For example, we may have two productive people who left our employ, but the reasons why each left could be very different. Consider:

  • Did they have difficulty with their manager, that they weren’t appreciated and valued?
  • Did they not feel like they had opportunities to develop their career?
  • Were they burnt out and wanted more balance in their life?
  • Did they lose confidence and trust in the senior leadership of the company?
  • Or, in the case of a few folks, was it all of the above and more?

Productive employees leave for many reasons, and a metric showing the percent of employees leaving won’t give us the information we need to understand and address the problem(s). Just because we have a metric called employee turnover gives us little, if any, insight into why valued employees left. We need more data, which we can get from tools like a well-crafted employee engagement survey or exit interview. (Warning, here’s a shameless promotion: My colleague and friend Leigh Branham conducted a wonderful study on why good employees leave, and found seven common reasons. You can learn more by checking out his book, The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave, and his web site: Keeping The People.)

And just how “lagging” is employee turnover as an indicator? According to Leigh’s research, many employees begin their deliberations about leaving their employer weeks, if not months, before they actually turn in their letter of resignation.

The cow is not only out of the barn, it’s in the next county.

It would be much better to get working on these issues before the bad news of the loss of a valued employee finally hits the radar screen. And mind you, a good engagement survey can only act as a guide for a well-intentioned leader to take the steps to address employee concerns.  The data can start some conversations or act as the impetus for asking questions for which the answers may not very pleasant. The clients we serve appreciate having data that can act as a guide for their actions before the problem of a mass departure that make the Exodus look like a petty spat.

And speaking of the engagement data, we see a significant dip in results regarding so-called “intent-to-stay”, suggesting that more disgruntled employees may be planning their departure as economic conditions get better and they start thinking about greener pastures. There is an increasingly larger group of employees who are “sullen and near mutiny”. We ought to be very concerned about that, concerned enough we start acting now.


Mr. Hebert raises another important question about employee engagement surveys. He is concerned that many employee engagement survey studies report only correlations between survey results and business results, such as improved retention or increases in per person productivity. He contends that just because something is correlated does not mean that there is evidence of causality— that just because two factors are correlated doesn’t necessarily mean one causes the other.

This is a very important argument. Returning to the world of health care for a moment, medical science has provided evidence that high blood pressure and bad cholesterol ratios cause certain medical conditions.  In the case of cholesterol, our government has been studying a community in Massachusetts for over fifty years and gathered mounds of data that provides evidence of causality, so we can are more convinced that this case has been firmly established and will act accordingly. This is good science, and we take the results of these tests seriously when we get this information.

There are other medical conditions where medical science established a correlation between two variables, but later found there was not causality. One of my favorite stories about having correlation without causality occurred in the early part of the twentieth century: the U.S. government put out a warning that there was a correlation between consuming a certain food, ice cream of all things, and an increase in polio.

Before you put down your spoonful of Rocky Road, eating ice cream doesn’t make contract get polio.

Polio is simply more virulent in the summer, when we also happen to eat more ice cream. So eating ice cream and an increase in polio are correlated, but there is not causality.

Let’s be clear– you cannot have causality with out correlation, but just because you have correlation does not mean you will always have causality. Kindly keep this in mind as you review any kind of research, because the distinction is important and can make a differnce.

Let us return to Mr. Hebert. He contends that although there may be a correlation between a workplace that has a higher engagement survey and higher business results that these variables are not causal, that there is no evidence that a more engaged workplace as measured by an engagement survey causes increased business results.

Actually, there is.

Several researchers have taken the additional steps to provide evidence of causality. Here’s one, from the consulting group Mercer. A report from the Conference Board, published in 2006, said this about the study:

Their most significant finding was that employee engagement increases preceded overall financial measure, strongly implying a causal relationship between engagement and financial achievement.

Yes, they use the word “imply”, you’ve got me there. Establishing causality is a far more difficult process, particularly because of the time required to conduct a study where evidence of causality is established. More studies will come, and I’m confident they’ll continue to make this case.

Perhaps the best evidence I can offer, which isn’t correlated or causal but merely anecdotal, comes from companies Leigh and I have had the opportunity to study that have been recognized as “Best Places to Work”. Our friends at Quantum Workplace recently asked whether these winning companies saw a relationship between employee engagement and customer satisfaction/loyalty. As Peter Drucker so deftly observed, there is no other purpose for a business beyond the acquisition and maintenance of a customer, so this would be a pretty important linkage to explore, right? Here are a few of the responses:

We post an e-mail address at the entrance to each of our properties that solicits guest feedback. As an example, one of our hotels honored as a Best Place to Work generates a disproportionate number of guest compliments relative to their peer properties in the company. In our industry, our goal is to meet or exceed our guest’s expectations. If we don’t have a great workplace, with engaged associates, we cannot expect a positive guest experience.

Customer service is the largest facet of everyone’s job here. Many of our employees field more than 75 calls per week. If they aren’t happy to be at work, that is, if they feel uncomfortable in their work environment, it will certainly come through in their tone. How many times have you been waited on by someone who was aggravated, stressed, or just couldn’t care less about their job? I’m sure their service was less than desirable. We want our employees to enjoy coming to work so that our customers will enjoy speaking with them.

We do very little marketing at my firm. Most of our business comes from existing clients and referrals. That is only possible if the people that are delivering the service are competent, motivated and engaged in exceeding our client’s expectations.

There is no question that a high satisfaction level in your employees translates directly to high satisfaction in your customers. When you think of yourself, your best days are when you are most satisfied with your work; this directly translates into how you deal with people.

The insights of these engaged workplaces will help us focus on the elements we should continue studying.

Although I’m in the business of selling employee engagement surveys and associated consulting services, I’ve advised many an employer to not conduct such an assessment. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t, because there are many employers who ought not. Leaders who really don’t care about creating an engaging workplace should not conduct such a survey, because when they conduct the survey they are setting an expectation that something is actually going to happen as a result of the survey. If leaders conduct a survey and don’t do anything about the results they will actually make engagement, however you define or measure it, worse.

To me, that’s management malpractice.

Whether a company conducts an engagement survey, employees deserve leaders who listen to their concerns and are willing to take bold steps to build a great workplace. An engagement survey is a tool, nothing more and nothing less, which can help leaders who have the right intentions and are willing to put in the work necessary to build a great workplace.

Mr. Hebert’s post raises some important questions that warrant further discussion. We need to be smart about the kind of metrics to which we pay attention. More importantly, we need leaders who will take this information and use it in the right way, an assumption we should not overlook. Good data in the hands of a misguided leader can produce horrible results as well.


There’s been a terrific discussion going on at Talent Anarchy about the use of metrics in this field, and Leigh and I were pleased to be given the opportunity to provide a guest post-hope you’ll check it out.

(pic courtesty http://www.sxc.hu/photo/72200)

[i] Employee Engagement: A Review of Current Research and Its Implications, by John Gibbons, The Conference Board, 2006.

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