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Activate Human Capital Group Blog


Not All Employee Engagement Surveys are Created Equal

A recent study by Bersin & Associates estimates that $720 million is spent by organizations each year to improve employee engagement. While this trend is encouraging for those in the engagement business, there is no guarantee that all of those dollars are being spent on the right kind of engagement surveys. How do you know if a survey is right for your company? Your engagement consultant should be able to tie survey results back to business performance, quantitatively, not anecdotally. After all, isn’t the purpose of engagement to improve the bottom line?

Fiscally responsible companies want to ensure that they are making the right investments when it comes to engagement. Activate Human Capital Group’s data analysis team scientifically concluded that effective, well-crafted engagement surveys are the first step in creating significant long-term results. Through years of using diagnostics to help organizations improve their bottom line, Activate’s research team has determined that the wrong kind of survey – or a carelessly constructed and conducted survey – can do more harm than good.

Activate’s research has shown that there are several reasons that engagement initiatives fail. First, if the deployed survey is poorly constructed and administered, there is a limited ability to glean useful information from the data. Examples of poor administration include: not offering a high degree of confidentiality to respondents, allowing respondents to enter their own demographics, and poor pre-survey communication. Secondly, not sharing the results with team members actually serves to disengage employees in subsequent administrations. Third, many teams do not discuss the results and form action plans. Fourth, is not making progress on the action plans that are generated. It’s most important to note that, without a well-designed survey, your organization doesn’t even stand a chance for success.

There are two important characteristics of engagement surveys; 1. Is the wording of the items. 2. The reporting of the survey data. During the development of Activate’s Employee Commitment IndexTM, every word of every item was analyzed and validated to business performance. Activate’s research team stated, “We use extreme wording to create a range of performance. Softer language can result in a higher score which may not give a true reading of conditions in the workplace.” 

For example it might be easy for an employee to give a 5 - or Strongly Agree, to an item reading “I receive recognition that is good for me”. However, we would not be able to clearly define if “good” is actually good enough. By changing the item to read “At work, I receive recognition that is perfect for me” our clients obtain a more discerning response and this level of discernment can uncover a more accurate view about the employee’s perception of the recognition they receive from managers. 

Reporting plays an important role as well. Some providers group the top two scores into a “top box” rating that is depicted by a % favorable rating which is misleading. For example; a provider may measure engagement on a scale of 1 to 5. When it comes time to report the data, they group 4’s and 5’s together to report that x percentage of the population has a favorable view of that item. This depiction of the data can create a “false positive.” There could be a significant difference between what a “4” means and what a “5” means, and that would be lost in this type of reporting methodology. 

There are many providers that have built surveys that they claim are validated. This raises two important questions; 1. Validated to what? Are the items validated to a hypothesis, or are they tied directly to business outcomes. The second question is – What is the utility of the instrument? Can you get something usable out of the data that will directly influence business performance? 

“We can build survey items that will result in high scores across the board if that’s what you want. The challenge is to build survey items that help identify things that you need and help to uncover the barriers to business performance”

A different issue with many industry leading engagement surveys is the number of items. It has become popular for companies to use surveys to gauge every nuance of employee attitude around every issue. Many times the managers start to believe that the survey is an end in itself, when in fact the survey is merely the jumping-off point for the hard work that follows. Activate’s survey instrument includes 22 items and takes approximately 7 minutes to complete. This eliminates survey fatigue and is a key contributor to driving higher response rates. 

“The question you have to ask is, are you measuring what matters?” Activate Chief Research Officer Emily Killham stated. “The survey is important, because it points you in the right direction strategically. It’s a dialogue starter. It’s not meant to be totally diagnostic of all of your issues. The survey instrument must have the appropriate amount of scientific rigor to make it worthwhile. Otherwise, save your company’s resources and throw a party for the employees.”

The temptation to view the survey as an adequate intervention in itself leads to the final pitfall that can await a company that conducts the wrong kind of engagement survey – a lack of consistent, intentional follow-up after scorecards are unveiled. Activate’s research has shown that if an organization surveys its employees and then fails to follow up it can actually move them backward in the area of engagement, because the survey raises employees’ hopes for genuine improvement and then that change doesn’t come.

Companies must truly grasp engagement as a business strategy and the first step is picking a survey with items that are directly and scientifically tied to your business goals which in turn become a leading indicator for business performance. An organization grows when its engagement survey marks the beginning of a new normal – an atmosphere where action plans are drafted and implemented, where progress is measured regularly, and where engagement is part of the ongoing conversation.