Tools of Engagement

Employee engagement surveys are only as good as the questions they’re built on.

By Leigh Rivenbark Feb 1, 2010
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February CoverIn 2001, Campbell Soup Co. faced tough times. Sales of its iconic red-and-white food brands were slumping, innovation was lacking, and employee morale was low, recalls Christi Downes, Campbell’s director of organization effectiveness.

Just the right time, then, to ask employees "How connected to the company are you feeling these days?"

Campbell, based in Camden, N.J., launched its first employee engagement survey at that low point because officials needed to know what would make workers feel more connected to the organization. Since then, Campbell has run engagement surveys annually, and today it surveys 6,000 to 7,000 employees—about a third of its workforce—each year, Downes notes. Executives have seen the ratio of engaged to disengaged employees go from 2-to-1 in 2003 to 23-to-1 today.

Downes and other HR leaders who measure employee engagement say companies shouldn’t wait until times are good to survey. Consider surveying even when the economy is down, determine exactly what matters to the organization, and write questions that will provide answers leaders can turn into actions.

Define Engagement

Business leaders sometimes plunge into surveys without first defining engagement. Consultants, vendors selling survey tools and other employers all have definitions that may or may not apply to your organization, notes John Gibbons, director of employee engagement research and survey services at The Conference Board, a membership and research organization based in New York.

HR professionals must decide for themselves what engagement means, Gibbons says. "Understand why you’re doing this. To find out if people love us? To evaluate the management team? To predict discretionary effort? To lower turnover rates?"

For example, a retailer might not care to know reasons for turnover but might want to measure whether employees are engaged in ways that improve customer service. Where research and development are important, company officials might want to measure whether employees are engaged in ways that prompt them to expend extra, personal effort.

Do some homework before talking to vendors or consultants or striking out on your own, Gibbons advises. Vendors create public-domain reports on their engagement research, so review their definitions of engagement and their focus.

Benjamin Schneider warns first-timers not to confuse measuring engagement with measuring job satisfaction. "Satisfaction is largely about stuff over which the larger company has control—pay, benefits—but engagement is mostly under the control of the local supervisor, through job assignments, trust and so on," says Schneider, senior research fellow with Chicago-based HR consulting firm Valtera and a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland.

Engagement surveys also aren’t opinion surveys. Opinion surveys ask how the organization is doing on broad initiatives leaders identify as important, such as diversity, but engagement surveys focus on "the extent you are personally connected to the organization … your daily work, your supervisor, the probability you want to stay with the organization" and how all of that affects productivity, says Laura Lea Clinton, GPHR, director of HR business partnerships at CARE, an international humanitarian organization. CARE, with 700 U.S. employees and operations in 45 countries, will roll out its first engagement survey this year.

Who Should Help?

Before writing questions, HR professionals and their vendors should decide who gets to contribute. Schneider recommends involving workers upfront. Employee focus groups can alert employers to issues that should be covered in survey questions.

For instance, if members of a focus group say, "This organization is really cheap, it doesn’t repair the equipment we need," the result could be questions asking whether employees have the resources they need to do their work or whether supervisors give them support, he says.

How involved should department heads be in designing questions? "Don’t allow the survey to be constructed by committee," Gibbons advises. Stakeholders may try to get pet projects onto the survey, and keeping their questions out may prove politically difficult.

However, some companies have had success in involving many stakeholders in survey creation. At Seattle-based outdoor gear cooperative REI, Michelle Clements, senior vice president of human resources, and HR planning and operations manager Chris Gardner invited 10 leaders from areas including retail, merchandising and information technology to review questions. The HR team members made clear that the leaders’ role was to provide suggestions, not to make final choices, she says. The leaders became advocates for the survey because they saw firsthand how it worked, Gardner says.

Employers emphasize that before a survey takes place, the sponsors should let executives, line managers and employees know that they will use the survey results to make changes employees can see. "What is the intent of what you’re going to do with the results?" says Don Lowman, co-author of Closing the Engagement Gap (Portfolio, 2008) and a member of the board of directors of global consulting firm Towers Watson & Co. "Have a commitment to act."

States of Mind

Structuring questions carefully yields useful answers.

Asking questions awkwardly can produce misleading answers, notes Clements, recalling one early survey question she simply calls "bad."

"We asked, ‘Rank your pay programs in order of importance from top to bottom.’ " Employees had to rank base pay, incentives and other programs. When some leaders saw the rankings, they assumed that if employees ranked incentives the lowest, for example, employees didn’t care about incentives. Not true, Clements says, but the forced rankings gave that impression. "We fixed this by asking individual questions about aspects of the pay program instead, like how we were doing delivering fair and equitable pay."

Brad Federman, author of Employee Engagement (Jossey-Bass, 2009), outlines two types of engagement questions. One type covers what he calls "core engagement issues, or ‘Do I have what I need to do my job?’ questions." The other covers "enriching engagement issues, or ‘Do you believe in the mission of the organization?’ questions."

HR professionals tempted to stick to broad questions about mission should realize that core issues of day-to-day resources are vital to employee engagement, he stresses. "If I don’t have a computer to do my work," Federman explains, "I’m not thinking about the mission of the organization."

Survey questions should address enduring issues, not transient projects, Gibbons says. "It’s less about ‘Did you participate in training this past year?’ and more about ‘Do you feel you get opportunities to develop?’ You’re trying to measure state of mind, not a particular program or activity."

Tricks of the Trade

Employers, consultants and authors offer some do’s and don’ts for crafting engagement surveys:

Strike the difficult balance between detailed and generic.

"Ask yourself, ‘Is this a question I could ask every year?’ If not, it’s too detailed," Gibbons advises. For instance, ask whether the company helps employees prepare for retirement, not whether they are happy with specifics of their 401(k) matching, he says. Ask whether they believe their job security is better at the company than it would be elsewhere, not what they thought of last year’s layoffs.

"Think about what actions the question could lead to," says Karen Paul, head of the Global Center of Expertise for Measurement at 3M in St. Paul, Minn. A "yes" or "no" answer to a generic statement like "My job demands are too high" doesn’t give an employer enough information to act.

Keep language neutral or positive.

Careful wording can take an item from negative to neutral, Paul says. "For instance, ask, ‘Is our line-to-staff ratio correct for a company our size?’ not ‘Are there too many staff for a company our size?’ " Avoid negatively worded items

Focus on behaviors.

Good questions probe supervisors’ and employees’ everyday behaviors and relate those behaviors to customer service whenever possible, Schneider says. For example, responses to statements such as "My supervisor recognizes and rewards good service to customers" or "When the bank gets busy, the branch manager takes control" let leaders know what’s going on day to day between employees and supervisors, Schneider says.

Beware of loaded questions or statements.

An example is "Do you look forward to going to work on Mondays?" Questions like that "elicit a ‘no’ easily," even from engaged workers, Federman says. Another example: "I have sufficient time to complete my activities." This query isn’t useful because "no one has enough time." And neither question asks about conditions an employer can change, adds Federman, also president of performance improvement company Performancepoint LLC in Memphis, Tenn. 

Avoid double-barreled questions.

These come about when leaders try to pack two or more ideas together, often as a way to shorten surveys, Paul says. Schneider offers an example: "We have neither the staff nor the resources to get the work done." If the answer is "strongly agree," it is unclear whether it is the staff or the resources that are lacking, he says.

Keep length reasonable.

Campbell holds its survey to about 20 questions, while 3M uses about 60 on its base survey. Julie Gebauer, co-author with Lowman of Closing the Engagement Gap, advises clients to limit surveys to 40 or 50 questions. Overly long surveys reduce participation rates and garner skewed responses because participants tick off answers just to finish, says Federman. He knows of one engagement survey that asked 356 questions.

Consider tailoring questions.

If you work with a vendor that comes to you with a base list of questions, discuss additions to reflect particular needs. Campbell uses a survey instrument from Gallup and adds its own questions. "We learned that managers are the most important factors in employee engagement," Downes says, so the company added questions about whether managers link daily objectives to business strategies, whether they give effective feedback and more.

Know the audience.

For example, asking "Are you allowed to focus on your specialization?" may collect useful information if the person answering is a specialist, but not if the respondent is a manager who no longer exercises a specialist’s skills, Federman says. And if a question asks about the respondent’s customer, it should be clear who that customer is, Paul says. "It’s internal if you’re HR, external if you’re in distribution and so on."

Consider what you’re saying about the organization’s values.

Survey questions put the organization’s values on display. "Careful question selection is vital because it tells employees what you care enough to ask about," says Downes. Paul says employees should be able to glance through a survey and learn what interests managers. That’s one reason she organizes questions by topics with clear headings—so employees easily can skim to see what matters to 3M.

Ask for a few written comments.

Some organizations include open-ended questions—where employees can write comments—at the end of surveys. REI researchers use such comments to identify themes they might not have covered in the survey and might want to address the next year, Gardner says. Online retailer provides space for comments on monthly surveys, and company leaders respond to some comments on its intranet, says HR director Rebecca Ratner, SPHR. hasn’t been using engagement surveys for very long. As a small company, engagement was easier to gauge, Ratner says. Then added about 300 positions in the past year, and leaders decided about 18 months ago that they needed to measure engagement more formally.

Consider your culture.

Clements says that in retail, "it would not be normal to ask employees about their work/life balance … or their pay," but REI asks about both because those issues matter to REI’s employees and their bosses. REI asks employees if they find the company to be a fun place to work—a question Clements says REI’s survey vendor told her was unusual. If there’s a characteristic of your culture that’s special, ask about it, even if it prompts questions that are not on HR’s or a vendor’s list, Clements advises.

Remember that the survey isn’t set in stone.

Experiment, advises Ratner. "It took us several rounds to get comfortable on what to ask," she says. "It might be some time before you get surveys that are truly useful." 

Taking the Pulse

Consider doing more than one type of survey, each with different questions, frequencies and audiences. 3M, having surveyed employees in various ways since 1951, does this—and so does, with far fewer employees.

Pulse surveys are briefer, more frequent surveys that address specific issues or are given to specific segments of the workforce, and they can take place between annual surveys, Gebauer notes., whose managers create surveys in-house, polls all 1,500 employees twice a year with a 45-question list. The company also conducts monthly, five-question pulse surveys that ask employees to respond to broader statements such as "I feel like I’m making progress in my career." The twice-yearly surveys go into more detail with responses to statements such as "My supervisor makes sure I get the support I need" or "My supervisor gives me timely feedback."

3M fields three kinds of engagement surveys, Paul says. One, done every other year, is for company leaders. A second survey covers about half the employee population each year. A third set of shorter surveys can be tailored for 3M operations in specific countries or business units.

Feedback at Every Level

Once a survey is fielded, breaking down engagement data for each business unit is important because local managers can make changes that truly affect engagement levels, Lowman says.

Schneider advocates having line managers communicate survey results to their own employees—and training line managers to do so—while also requiring them to create action plans to respond to survey recommendations.

Campbell expects all employees to have engagement objectives in their performance reviews so engagement is from the top down and from the bottom up, Downes says. Each business unit gets its engagement results and has to produce "actions that are meaningful for their work teams."

REI distributes survey results for every department, unit and store, Clements says, and forms action teams that include part-timers, hourly employees, managers and supervisors. Clements adds that HR colleagues in other companies tell her about engagement surveys that end up in leaders’ hands and "the onus is all on leaders to make changes … but employees must have a role in changes," she says. "We share accountability all the way down the employee line."


The author is a freelance writer and editor in Vienna, Va.

Web Extras​

SHRM article: To Ask or Not to Ask (HR Magazine)

SHRM article: The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Employee Engagement (SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline)

SHRM webcast: Employee Engagement Surveys: Laying the Groundwork

SHRM poll: Has Your Organization Used a Formal Method to Measure Employee Engagement Level?

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