January 16, 2013
CALGARY, AB, Jan. 16, 2013/ Troy Media/ – Each year, hundreds of thousands of people, employees from the executive suite to the front lines, are asked to complete an employee survey. Almost a billion dollars worth of engagement surveys are sold in North America each year.
The case for improving employee engagement is impressive. The Hay Group, a major survey provider, says that; “high levels of employee engagement can boost revenue growth by up to two and a half times.” Aon Hewitt notes: “20 per cent of the organization’s (most engaged) employees create 80 per cent of the value” and Gallup, the polling company, claims that “actively disengaged employees . . . cost the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity“.
Numbers like these get attention. It’s worth spending a billion to get 350 billion back. But is any of it working? Is business getting a return on the investment?
The increasingly obvious answer is ‘No’. Worse, these surveys are likely doing more harm than good.
The first cracks in the employee engagement hype appeared in Peter Hutton’s What Are Your Staff Trying to Tell You?, published in 2008. It concluded that, whatever it was, it wasn’t what the employee survey said it was. Last year, Business of HR blogger John Hollon, called engagement surveys a mindless waste producing terrible results.
Now we know why. According to “Understanding Employee Engagement and Trust; The New Math of Engagement Surveys” to be published next week in the American Society for Quality’s, Journal of Quality and Participation; “The dirty little secret of employee engagement surveys is that they’re largely junk science – placing the marketing objective of telling and selling a good story above the practical and ethical objective of telling the truth.” Statistical methods are misused, corrupting survey results, while providing an air of scientific legitimacy.
Just how bad is it? The statistical methods used to identify important findings in engagement surveys, such as statistical significance tests and regression analysis, are the same methods used in the 1994 best seller ‘The Bell Curve‘ to prove that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites.
Among The Bell Curve recommendations; keeping aboriginals on reserve to limit racial mixing, and using financial incentives to encourage rich white women to have more babies. These were intended to increase the IQ of society. Employee engagement surveys use the same statistical methods and get similarly insightful recommendations geared to increasing the engagement score of the business.
Some organizations base management bonuses on engagement score improvement. It’s not lost on managers that the fastest way to improving engagement is firing anyone suspected of providing negative feedback.
This junk science continues in the ranking of engagement results (i.e.; 100 best companies to work for) and in cherry picking factors comprising engagement models. For example, Gallup found that the pride employees feel in working for a company was among the most important factors influencing engagement. But it’s not in Gallup’s Q12 model. Why? Because it wasn’t deemed ‘actionable’.
Actionable by whom? Perhaps not by those in the front lines, but creating a company people can take pride in should be somebody’s responsibility. Say the top of the house? Cherry-picking produces biased engagement models that sacrifice engagement by ensuring blame is fully allocated to the mid- and lower-levels of the organization.
Should we rid ourselves of the employee survey? No, but business needs to stop the junk science.
We need to get feedback useful in building better, more productive, workplaces. That means gathering improvement-oriented data concerning what people like and what they don’t, what’s working and what isn’t. Employees, and employee feedback, needs to be treated with a little respect.
Do that, and business will soon get some engagement bang for its billion bucks.
Troy Media columnist Robert Gerst is a Partner in Charge of Operational Excellence and Research & Statistical Methods at Converge Consulting Group Inc. He is author of The Performance Improvement Toolkit: The Guide to Knowledge-Based Improvement and numerous articles in peer-reviewed publications.
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