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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

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

Generational Diversity and Employee Engagement

12 May

Joe Gerstandt, author of the blog Our Time To Act, commented today about the findings in our book on employee engagement and generational diversity. Joe is passionate about helping organizations appreciate “the value of difference”.

Our research shows that as an organization becomes more age diverse employee engagement suffers. It is an important example of how most organizations are struggling with diversity, in this case having four unique generations in the workplace.

In part, Joe reflects on these results:

Diversity is hard.

Most really important, really valuable stuff is hard.  Honesty is hard.  Change is hard.  Leadership is hard.  So is diversity.

Increasing the diversity (or difference) in a social group changes that social group. Always. Every time. Any time you bring more difference or pay more attention to existing difference in a social group you increase the potential for in-group/out-group dynamics, stereotyping, tension, conflict, etc.  We have a very real tendency to see difference as the cause of these dynamics, but this is not about the difference…these outcomes are about the container that the difference exists in.

Joe asked me to offer up more details on our research, which I’m delighted to present. These findings are based on a study of over 3,200 US employers. (By the way, we’ve had folks ask about how diversity in gender or ethnicity impacts employee engagement. Those demographics are not currently collected in survey from our friends at Quantum Workplace— good idea for future research!)

From Re-Engage, pages 36-38:

We conducted a novel analysis of the results from Best-Places-to-Work surveys to determine whether the more age-diverse employers had lower engagement levels. In other words, we asked: “Does having a broader and more balanced spectrum of ages represented in the workforce reduce an employer’s chances of creating a highly engaged workplace?”

The results of our analysis-after controlling for other company characteristics such as age, position type, company size, and tenure-showed us that greater variation in age within a company actually has a negative impact on engagement. The statistical results were quite eye-opening.  It turns out that, after controlling for the variables described above, the level of generational diversity accounts for more than 25 percent of the variance in employee engagement. Said another way, this single variable, what we call the Generational Diversity Indicator (GDI), is a significant factor in the ability of an organization to create a highly engaged workplace.

How much of an impact does this single factor have on employee engagement? The greater the age diversity (the higher the GDI), the less likely the employer will have high engagement scores.

For example, according to our study:

  • If an employer has a slightly age-diverse workforce (more than 1.5 on our scale), it is three times more likely to have a lower overall engagement score.
  • If the employer has a moderately age-diverse workforce (more than 2.0), it is five times more likely to have a lower overall engagement score.
  • If an employer has a highly age-diverse workforce (more than 3.0), it is six times more likely to have a low overall engagement score.

Even the best of Best-Places-to-Work employers find generational diversity challenging. The CEO of one winning company, who has primarily hired younger employers at his technology-based services company, has admitted to failures in assimilating older employers into the culture. He states: “Older employees often have perceptions of work which aren’t necessarily wrong, but are very different than our culture. We’ve had a few who didn’t make it because they were rejected by younger employees before they even had a chance to succeed.”

The correlation between greater age diversity and lower engagement applies to employers regardless of average workforce age-in other words, regardless of which generation is predominant in the organization. Thus a relatively homogenous company of mostly Boomers or mostly Generation X-ers is more likely to have a higher level of employee engagement than an employer with more generational diversity.

In summary, a company’s GDI is a revealing demographic, potentially indicating a significant challenge to its efforts to develop a highly engaged workforce. Most employers aren’t going to resist the demographic trend and economic necessity of generational diversity just because it makes employee engagement more challenging.  The tide cannot be turned. We all will need to accept this phenomenon while working to lessen any negative effects and turn increased diversity to our advantage where we can.

Employee Engagement “Recession” May Be Thawing

25 Apr

Employee attitudes about work engagement, hit hard by the recession, may be improving, according to a survey of 62,000 employees collected in the first quarter of 2010. The study, conducted by Quantum Workplace of Omaha, Nebraska, shows overall employee engagement increasing in comparison to results from previous years. The overall engagement index increased to 87.7, up from the previous two years. In 2008 the overall index was 86.58 and in 2009 the index was 86.68.

The survey collects responses for ten dimensions, including employee perceptions of senior leadership, team effectiveness, fair compensation and manager effectiveness. “This is the first sign we’ve seen that the impact of the recession on employee engagement may be easing”, according to Quantum Workplace president Gregory Harris.

“Although these results are encouraging, we have a long way to go in creating highly engaged workplaces”, according to Mark Hirschfeld, Principal at SilverStone Group in Omaha, Nebraska, who has collaborated with Quantum Workplace on this study over the past three years. “There is a large group of employees who experienced poor leadership over the last two years, and many of them are still disengaged. This disengagement has impacted their productivity to the point where they will leave for better work environments”, said Hirschfeld, co-author of Re-Engage: How America’s Best Places to Work Inspire Extra Effort in Extraordinary Times, published earlier this year by McGraw-Hill.

Harris concludes: “The companies we study who have the highest levels of engagement aren’t taking anything for granted right now. They’re continuing to invest in their employees, and our data indicates they’ll be in a better position to make their way out of this recession than companies with disengaged workforces. These companies are winning because they’ve built an engaging culture.”

The Power of Following Up

16 Apr

My colleagues Merle Riepe, Danielle Seymour and I recently wrote an article about the importance of following up on employee engagement survey results. We know that when you conduct a survey you are setting an expectation that something is going to happen, and leaders who have engagement surveys conducted where they work should be aware of what is at stake if you don’t follow up. The research we conducted on this topic is compelling.

Follow-Up: The Power of Positive Feedback Woody Allen is famously quoted as saying “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” We’re pretty sure there’s more to it than that, but when it comes to developing a more engaged workforce, Mr. Allen is actually on to something. Read the full SilverLink article from SilverStone Group’s website.

Can Changes In Employee Engagement Fortell Movement In The Economy?

24 Aug


My friends at Quantum Workplace think there’s substance to this question. At their The Science of Work blog earlier this month we find their most recent post on the topic:

Our June 30 blog post predicted July would be an “up” month for the Dow Jones Industrial Average. And “up” was an understatement as we saw the stock index climb 8.6% in a single month. That improves the record of our linkage analysis between our Employee Engagement Index and the Dow–successfully predicting movements in 12 of the last 15 months.

Unfortunately our Engagement Index showed a slight decline between April and March. Due to the 4-month lag in our model, we’re expecting a corresponding decline in the Dow for August.

CNBC, are you listening?

The theory behind this is interesting– if we’re more engaged as a country, for example, and four months later our “extra effort” shows up in improved company performane as measured by movement in the Dow Jones.

We know there is a relationship between employee engagment and business performance at an individual company level– could it translate on a “macro” level?

Stay tuned!

Yet Another Study Linking Engagement & Patient Satisfaction

21 Aug


Yet another study reported by PR Newswire of the relationship between employee engagement and patient satisfaction:

“In the health care industry, as in other service-related businesses, having engaged, empowered, loyal employees can lead to increased retention, lower costs, enhanced reputation, and a profitable business picture,” said Forum President Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP, vice president, business development, O.C. Tanner Company. “And now, we are finding that having satisfied employees leads to higher quality of patient care and overall better patient experiences.”

Some key findings from the study, found at, include:

  • Patients that have higher levels of satisfaction are most likely to recommend the hospital to others when they are treated by highly-satisfied employees. Word of mouth, more than any other source of marketing promotion, is a primary driver in patient care decisions.
  • As the popularity of electronic testing and monitoring expands, health care employees, more than ever, need to exercise “the personal touch” in caring for patients.
  • In addition to what health care workers do, emphasis needs to be placed on how employees feel about what they do. Patient experiences will not be good if employees are not happy.

It’s beyond my pay grade to sort out all the reform that we need in our health care system, but it’s above anybody’s pay grade to see the evidence that more engaged employees is one key factor to the success of our health care delivery model– more engaged employees leads to more satisfied, healthy patients.

Case closed.

Defining Employee Engagement Continued

9 Mar


In an earlier post I offered my defintion of employee engagement. Researchers at Hewitt have arrived at a similar conclusion. Findings reported in Business Standard indicate they see three behaviors:

Engaged employees stay — they have an intense desire to be a member of the organisation; say — they are passionate advocates for their workplace and speak positively about the organisation to co-workers, potential employees and customers; and strive — they go beyond what is minimally required to produce extraordinary service and results for customers and colleagues.

Look at this example of how P&G employees act like an owner of the company, treating the company’s assets as their own. During a period of heavy rain which had caused severe flooding, the government declared a holiday for all its offices, but a lot of P&G material was awaiting clearance at the customs office. The plant engineer had valid reasons to wait for a day, but he took the initiative: He braved the rains to pick up a customs official from his house and took him to his office to authorise its clearance. He then made sure that all the raw materials were delivered to the plant on the same day. As a result, the production lines didn’t have to stop.

Would your employees go to such lengths to help your business achieve its goals? If the answer is yes, you have done your job as an employer. If not, take the Kelly survey seriously before it’s too late.

I think we’re getting some consensus around this idea of employee engagement– that’s good. More importantly, we’re hearing examples, such the one cited above, of specific behavior we can clearly observe that shows us when employees are engaged. Would love to hear your stories of engagement and disengagement.

Graphic courtesy

Employee Engagement And Well Being– Two Sides Of The Same Coin

26 Feb

Consultant News has published a research study by Hewitt that shows yet additional evidence that well being and employee engagment may be two sides of the same coin– very much linked together:

“Research carried out in conjunction with the 2009 Best Employers in Canada study has established that highly engaged employees experience better health and overall well-being. This finding reinforces the benefits for both employers and employees of increasing employee engagement, according to Hewitt Associates, the global human resources consulting and outsourcing company that conducts the annual study.

“The 115,000 employees surveyed as part of the 2009 study clearly revealed that high engagement goes hand-in-hand with better health and well-being,” said Neil Crawford, leader of Hewitt’s Best Employers in Canada study. “Employees at organizations with high engagement reported better physical health, lower job stress and work overload, and greater financial security. In addition, they also believe that their employer’s benefits plan contributes to their overall well-being, although there is room for improvement with respect to retirement savings programs.”

I read of the governmental plans to “reform” our health care, which is all fine and well. But perhaps the most important reform we can make would be to create better workplaces which, amongst other things, cares about the health and well being of employees. According to this study this may be, as they say, exactly what the doctor ordered.

“Happy Hospitals Make Happy Patients”…

11 Feb


… Or says a study recently published in Science Daily. The research, conducted by University of Michigan Professor John Griffith, concludes:

In a newly published report, Griffith examined the attributes of 34 community hospitals in nine states that have earned the Health Care Sector Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, a nationally recognized quality benchmark for various industries.

Griffith’s findings suggest that the single-biggest factor in patient satisfaction is hospital employee morale, which starts with outside-the-box thinking at the very top management levels.

These community hospitals had the happiest patients and caregivers, but only because these hospitals departed radically from traditional hospital management, Griffith says.

My co-author Leigh Branham and I conducted a study of the employee engagement in over 100 hospitals, and came to the same conclusion– there is a direct link between employee engagement  and patient satisfaction. Moreover, employee at hospitals with very low engagement results were far more likely to report patient safety and other complaince-related problems, something no hospital wants. Perhaps one way to deal with our health care crisis is to create more engaged workplaces like these honored today.

Think You Know What Your Employees Are Thinking Right Now? Think Again.

9 Feb


Salary.Com Inc. has conducted a survey of employee and employer perceptions about employee job satisfaction and intent-to-stay. The study, reviewed at Occupational Safety & Health Online reports:

According to the survey, employee satisfaction levels are often overestimated by employers. A set of questions new to this year’s survey found that the current economic climate was less of a deterrent to job seeking than employers anticipated, while variables such as income, job level, industry and age remained consistent factors that affect job satisfaction year-over-year.

Key data points:

• Overall, the survey showed that 65 percent of employees are at least somewhat satisfied in their jobs while employers estimated that figure to be 77 percent. 
• Approximately 65 percent of employees admitted to passively or actively looking for a new job, compared to employers’ estimate of 37 percent. 
• While employers have a good sense of overall employee satisfaction, they often overestimate the degree of extremely satisfied employees nearly 2 to 1. 
• The levels of satisfaction among employees surveyed varied by job level and salary. Not surprisingly, the results of the survey suggest there is a direct link between pay and satisfaction — the higher the salary and job level, the greater the number of extremely satisfied employees. 
• Age affects job satisfaction — millennials report the lowest job satisfaction.

Perhaps this study doesn’t shock you, but it does reveal an important insight that should call us to action–the best way to find about how employees are feeling is to ask them. We need to do a much better job of listening, really hearing, what our associates are feeling right now.