Tag Archives: Great Workplaces

A Defense (of a sort) of Metrics

21 Feb

Written by Mark Hirschfeld and Leigh Branham

This post was originally published as a guest post by our friends Jason Lauritsen and Joe Gerstandt at Talent Anarchy. Do check out their web site for the entire chain of discussion on this important topic.


This message begins with a disclosure: We earn a great deal of our living helping collect, analyze and create metrics for employers across the United States.

We’re data guys.

You could call us data nerds or data geeks or data commandos and our feelings wouldn’t be hurt one bit. You are certainly welcome to keep this in mind as we respond to the remarks of Joe Gerstandt and Jason Lauritsen and their recent tête-à-tête at Talent Anarchy.

Jason and Joe have offered us a refreshingly candid discussion around a very important question, that being the use of metrics in the effort to build great workplaces. We’re grateful for the opportunity to weigh in on this topic.

Over 110 years ago a German physicist, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, brought radiography, or what we more commonly call x-rays, into practical use. The technology, as it was initially designed, had major flaws. For one, in the case of its use as a diagnostic tool in medicine, it creates a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object. Because of this weakness there are times when the radiographic picture is inaccurate. There is distortion. The image on a flat x-ray cannot accurately represent the length and width and girth of our body. Early applications of x-rays hurt patients, as well-intended medical researchers slowly lurched the technology forward.

Mark once read that what we know about predicting human behavior is roughly equivalent to medicine in the Middle Ages. That might be a bit dramatic, but it makes an important point—our ways of measuring things like employee engagement are still in their infancy. How we go about measuring human-related “stuff” isn’t as good as it should be right now.

But we’ll get better at it, and we think it’s worth the effort.

There are some crappy metrics out there and metrics being used in the wrong way. Profit, for example, may not always be seen by all as the most worthy goal, though it is highly measurable.  What is more worthy is creating something of value that employees feel good about, and feeling engaged in the creation of it.  The irony is that by initiating and tracking progress on the people metrics, the mystery of how to increase profits is often revealed.  Too many leaders just don’t get it that engagement, for example, is not a program or gold watch or “billion-business-book-of-the-month-club”. It is a leading indicator of customer service, profitability, and value creation…and that the building blocks of employee engagement can be measured in several ways.  Progress doesn’t have to mean “always more,” but it can mean “always better”.

In our travels we’ve met those who use metrics as a sledge hammer, seemingly thinking that employee engagement is about getting one more morsel of flesh out of employees. They may get their pound of flesh, but they’ll never get the sustainable business results for which they pine. One of our favorite horror stories is about an executive who heard that a “great workplace” used green M&M’s as a way of celebrating with employees when the company had a success. This executive decided to bring green M&M’s into his company as a way of creating a more engaged workplace. He was bitterly disappointed that a year later his employees still didn’t think it was good place to work. This ignoramus didn’t understand that the green M&M’s at this company he had read about were a symbol behind which there was significant substance, most importantly a remarkable culture that had been built and nurtured over many years. The best metrics in the world won’t save this dope from himself, nor his company from languishing.

We also have some folks out there, in some cases well-intended, who don’t understand how to use human capital metrics properly and, as a result, make a general mess of things. We often do a horrible job of helping leaders understand how to use tools and resources available to help them be more effective serving and supporting the workplaces they have the privilege to lead.

There are some things we may not ever be able to measure. We may not be able to measure honesty, compassion, and courage, but we can measure the results that those traits produce–lower voluntary turnover, lower quit rates, fewer grievances filed, more internal job progressions allowed, more customers returning more frequently and referring their friends, more managers coaching (often confronting), recognizing (more often) and giving constructive feedback, more new employees being hired through referrals from happier, more engaged employees–all measures of not just more, but of better places to work that do indeed serve as measures of progress toward becoming a remarkable workplace. 

Many of us dream of a world of work that is different than what most now experience. We hope for a workplace where leaders actually give a damn about the people in their employ. Wouldn’t it be great:

  • If a CEO was notified by employees that a new product offering “embarrassed them”, that the CEO took those concerns seriously and immediately changed the product because he always wanted his employees to take pride in their work and their company?
  • A company, in the midst of difficult times, encouraged and helped their employees find new jobs if they couldn’t get them enough hours in their current job?
  • Terminated employees who were a poor fit for a job would feel so positive about their work experience that they would refer family and friends to their former employer?
  • An employer would have such a strong, caring, engaging culture, that when they were forced to have layoffs that all their former employees willingly returned when the economy turned around?
  • An executive team would freely give up their employer funded 401(k) match so that money could be distributed to entry-level employees who participated in the company retirement program?

These aren’t dreams or hopes. Each of these is true.

They come from employers we have had the pleasure of learning about through our research. There may not be many of these places, but they do exist. We wish there were more, and one goal in writing Re-Engage was to inspire other employers that creating and maintaining an engaging workplace can be achieved and that the sometimes arduous, frequently challenging journey is worth it.

There are remarkable leaders out there like the ones we profile, who are doing remarkable things in the world of work. They care deeply. They have compassion and love in their hearts. And along with their hearts, they also have a passion for making sure they’re measuring how well they’re doing in their efforts to create and maintain a great place to work.  

To them this is not an either-or, false-choice proposition— either they care about folks or they care about metrics. With every fiber that is in them they embrace this paradox and care about both.

To them, engagement survey results or other metrics are just like the x-ray. They are crude two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional living organism called an employer. These leaders use metrics as a way to start a discussion with employees, not as the final answer. They use metrics to support having an honest conversation with a supervisor who isn’t captivating and inspiring her/his employees. They use metrics to inform their gut instinct, not replace it. They use metrics as a guide in making important decisions, not the final word.

One company we’ve worked with achieved a significant year-over-year increase in the results of the employee engagement survey we conduct. The increases were in areas like breaking down unnecessary silos that got in the way of employees working together and having managers who were perceived as more open and honest in their communication with employees. Employees felt more appreciated when they contributed to the success of the business, and perceptions that senior leadership truly cared about building a great workplace were on the rise. These survey results came from efforts on the part of a leadership team that has devoted themselves for over two years to build a more engaging workplace.

They also had one of their best years financially in a long time.

To them, and us, their financial success is not coincidental. These leaders did not achieve this by luck or chance. By thoughtfully and patiently building a great workplace their financial success was, in our view, an inevitable, even natural, result.

No metric we can create or conceive can turn a poor leader from wreaking pain, havoc and agony with every step they take to the employees who fall in their path. But the right metrics used in the right way in the hands of caring leaders can achieve much.

(pic courtesy http://www.sxc.hu/photo/565371)

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.

“He’s Been Sleeping On The Job Longer”– Unfair Pay

5 Feb


I just had a conversation with a client who was trying to address a high level of unfavorable ratings in their annual engagement survey to employee perceptions of “fair pay”. It’s a question that frequently does poorly, but the scores were particularly low here.

There are instances when perceptions of “fair pay” relate to external equity– employees are upset that others down the street at another company are making more than they do in similar jobs. But more often I’ve seen more significant problems with internal equity– that employees see marked differences in pay amongst peers. Often the perception of internal inequity can be summed up by a comment I heard from an employee:

That guy in our department has been around forever. I’m just getting started here, but I’m working twice as hard as he is. He’s been sleeping on the job for a long time, but because he has more tenure he’s paid more. That’s just not fair.

No, it’s not fair. More importantly, that perception led this employee, and many others, to report lower levels of engagement in many other areas. Said another way, employee perceptions of unfair pay impact overall employee engagement.


  • Are there areas where internal inequity in compensation exist in your place of work?
  • In some cases, are poor performers getting paid more just becuase they have more tenure and, if so, what can be done to address their lack of performance?

The Three Year Itch

1 Feb

We’ve all heard about the seven-year itch, right? I’ve noticed a trend with several employee engagement surveys I’ve recently reviewed, where the itch starts a bit earlier.

What I’ve often noticed is that employee engagement is solid for new employees and is good once employees have been with the organization for five or more years. But there is a dip in the two to four year tenure, where employees appear to be getting the “itch”, less engaged and committed to their employer.

With one company the “itch” started because many employees in that tenure group didn’t see career opportunities. In another employer the dip was related to less support received after the first year filled with lots of training and support. In another the problem was an internal posting process that made it difficult for employees to move across company “stove pipes”.


  • Do our 2-4 year tenure employees shows signs of the “itch”?
  • If so, what we can do to re-engage them?
  • Are there internal obstacles we must address that will help us maintain high levels of engagement with this group?

“Suffering From Too Much Recognition?” A Tale of Two Bosses

30 Jan

A conversation I had with a former boss came to mind today. The thought of offering praise to an employee, including yours truly, was not in his “management style”.  There were certainly lots of good things to celebrate– new customers, growing revenues, a sound bottom line. He thought that people “doing their job was no reason to get all excited, plus if you start praising people it will just go to their heads”– thus the dearth of praise, even when things were going well.

Another former boss, Dr. Donald O. Clifton, used to ask audiences a question when it came to this topic of praise: “If any of you out there are suffering from too much recognition, please raise your hand?” Never was a hand shown.

In fact, if we ever error regarding recognition, it is too little and without sincerity. The chances that we would “over-praise” someone are slim to none. In my case, the first boss never got the best out of me, and I would have walked through fire to please Don Clifton if he would have asked– have you felt this difference in your life? Our studies of outstanding workplaces indicates this is a critical driver of employee engagement.


  • What can we do to dispel the myth that we should worry about “over-praising” our associates?
  • Can we do a better job of celebrating the successes of our associates, particularly in these difficult times?
  • How we can we help all our leaders be more effective at recognizing their staff in a meaningful way?

“We’re One Big Family”

29 Jan

We used to live in a neighborhood that was, in a word, special. The kids in the hood grew up together, walked in and out of each home on the street like it was their own– relationships that have stood the test of time and distance. We used to throw our money together and have the biggest Fourth of July fireworks blowout in the county. We were neighbors. We were friends. We were, in a word, family.

I’m taking you down this memory lane trip because that feeling– family– is an element of highly engaged workplaces. When we study the survey comments at highly engaged companies that theme– “we’re one big family”– emerges frequently. At poorly engaged companies– “family”– and the neighborly, positive sense that goes with it, is absent. Coincidence? I think not.

Although many of us didn’t have the best “family” experience growing up, we can certainly hope for the best of what family can mean– care, trust, acceptance. This is exactly what employees at great workplaces are talking about! We didn’t tell them to say “this place feels like family”– they chose those words to describe what their work experience feels like. Importantly, it’s that feeling that fuels engagement, which we know leads to more productivity, employee retention and customer loyalty.


  • Do our employees feel this way about our workplace?
  • If they don’t, what’s getting in the way from them doing so?
  • Given the current economic crisis, what can we do right now to start building that sense of family, knowing it can help get us through the difficult times ahead?

How To Destroy Someone

18 Jan

My former boss and mentor Don Clifton frequently told audiences that one way you could destroy a person was to repeatedly ask them to do something for which they have no adequate response in terms of their abilities. That sounds pretty dramatic, but by not putting people into roles that fit their strengths we often do this in the workplace. This fate has sadly befallen me twice in my career, and although I wasn’t destroyed I certainly suffered. One miscast employee laments:

My talents are a mismatch with my job but I cannot change jobs right now. I would be more positive about our company if I could do something here more in line with my abilities.


  • How many employees do you have that are in the wrong job, a “square peg in a round hole”, so to speak?
  • More importantly, how much is the productivity of your company suffering because good people are in jobs that are a poor fit for them?

Engaging Employees– More Important Than Ever

17 Jan


I know our current economic situation is difficult. But let’s not make that an excuse to stop doing what we should as leaders—developing and mentoring! The comment below comes from an executive at a company that has been recognized for their outstanding engagement:

There is a spirit of teamwork (here) – more so than any other company I have worked at before and people are looked to for specialties so there is a way to stand out. As a executive, I know that we are constantly trying to develop and mentor anyone at more junior levels and teach them to manage as well.

May I be so bold to say that this may be the best time to focus our efforts on development, particularly with our best and brightest? I’m sure this executive is worried about the future of her business, but she still feels confident that the culture she and the rest of her executive team has created will help them get through these bumpy times. I think she’s right, don’t you?