Employee Surveys Help Measure Engagement

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 1, 2009
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Three-fourths of the global workforce isn’t engaged in their work and organization—these include “quit and stay employees” who do just enough to get by, and “water cooler malcontents,” said Kevin Sheridan, CEO and founder of HR Solutions Inc., during a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) webinar, “Employee Engagement Surveys: Laying the Groundwork,” on Sept. 16, 2009.

Surveys can be helpful in gauging the level of employee engagement, but employers need to realize that such surveys differ from other employee surveys, according to Sheridan. Employee opinion and satisfaction surveys measure workers’ views, attitudes and perceptions of their organization. An employee culture survey measures employees’ point of view to assess whether they align with the organization or its departments.

However, engagement surveys measure an employee’s commitment, motivation, sense of purpose and passion for their work and organization.

The importance of fully committed and contributing employees will grow as the recession recedes, he noted, as opportunities open outside the organization and top performers begin to look elsewhere.

HR Solutions found that the top reasons employees leave were:

  • Pay (23 percent).
  • Benefits (5 percent).
  • The employee’s supervisor or manager (18 percent).
  • Career advancement (15 percent).
  • Other (39 percent).

“You’ve got to get a handle on what your ‘other’ is,” Sheridan said. Often it’s work/life balance or a workload/staffing imbalance.

Then, take action.

“It’s easy to build a survey. … It’s a lot tougher to turn that data into action,” said Sheridan, whose consulting firm specializes in employee engagement and exit surveys.

The cost of such surveys varies from $5 to $25 per employee, he estimated. Deciding what to budget depends on what the organization wants to achieve, Sheridan said.

The timing of the survey is an element organizations should bear in mind, he said, noting that a comprehensive one is best for organizations that have never conducted an engagement survey. Scores will be lower than successive surveys, he cautioned.

“These are meant to be ongoing barometers,” he said.

“They haven’t been asking, so they haven’t been acting,” he pointed out. He cited an August 2009 non-scientific SHRM poll that found that 34 percent of those polled said their organizations had never conducted an employee attitude survey.

The greatest mistakes organizations make with engagement surveys are failing to gain senior management commitment to act on survey results and failing to use focus groups to delve into the root of negative scores or comments, according to Sheridan.

“Without the qualitative focus groups—or what we call feedback sessions—managers run the risk of prejudging the conclusion [of the survey results] and, of course, designing the wrong action plan,” Sheridan told SHRM Online after the webinar.

An engagement survey that shows, for example, employees rating HR policies lower than the norm of that employer’s industry might be because of the organization’s sick day or travel policies, Sheridan said. Without a focus group to explore the cause, though, managers are left guessing and any corrective measure they take could be off the mark.

“At the end of the day they’re left wondering why the action plan didn’t work, and didn’t move the score and the reason is the action plan is based on the wrong thing.”

To overcome those missteps, he advises organizations to:

  • Have management communicate to employees that the survey is an organizational, not a public relations, initiative.
  • Consider creating a survey committee to instill broad buy-in.
  • Create feedback or focus groups to determine the level of significance of specific items mentioned in the survey.
  • Involve the entire management team in the action-planning process to ensure that changes are made based on employee feedback.

Do not disseminate the open-ended comments widely, Sheridan added. Instead, they should be grouped by theme and categorized at the work group level for HR and the CEO or president’s review. Disseminating employee comments kills the confidential aspect of the survey, he explained.

Wait about 18 months before initiating another engagement survey, when there is a greater likelihood that solutions based on the previous findings will be in place.

Building an Engaged Workforce

Sheridan said that the top drivers of engagement are career development; open communications; the leadership abilities of the direct supervisor or manager; senior management’s relationship with its associates; the company’s strategy or mission; employee recognition programs and the organizational culture.

Engagement must be built in from the first day of employment, he added, because one out of 25 employees quit that day.

“They show up for work on their first day, their manager is not there to introduce them to their co-workers … their e-mail isn’t set up, their phone doesn’t work,” Sheridan said. “Their first day, they get all these negative signs. This is a reality. Give them work right away. Make them feel they’re contributing right away.”

Managers should be held accountable for engagement, he added.

“If you care about employee feedback and you’re going to hold your managers accountable, why wouldn’t you tie this to the manager’s performance?”

However, the employee is the other half of the engagement equation. Often, employees sit back and expect the employer to engage them, but it’s a mutual responsibility, according to Sheridan.

“It’s not all on the shoulders of management; it shouldn’t be,” he said.

Some ways organizations can empower their employees to be responsible for their engagement is by encouraging them to:

  • Ask for clarification if instructions from supervisors are unclear.
  • Get to know senior leadership.
  • Participate in and contribute to decisions affecting the work environment.
  • Ask for feedback about their work performance and act on it.
  • Set themselves up for recognition.
  • Ask for any resources that are unavailable and could help them improve their performance.
  • Seek learning, knowledge and satisfaction from co-workers.
  • Request a career planning meeting with a manager.
  • Believe in their ability to contribute to their organization’s success.
  • Be proud of where they work, and adopt a positive attitude.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

Related Articles:

More Plan to Focus on Employee Engagement in Rewards, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline,June 10, 2009

Keep Engagement Up During Tough Economic Times, SHRM Online Business Leadership Discipline, Oct. 28, 2008

The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Employee Engagement, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, March 4, 2009

Employee Engagement, Creativity Can Drive Retention, SHRM Online Staffing Management, Sept. 9, 2008

Management Holds Key to Employee Engagement, HR Magazine, February 2008

Engagement Factors Vary by Country, Business, Function, HR News, Jan. 23, 2008

Related Resource:

Employee Engagement and Commitment, SHRM Foundation report

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