For what it’s worth: the employee engagement survey

by Iain Hopkins25 Feb 2013

Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on employee engagement surveys by US firms, but they may be ‘junk science.’

This is the claim of a new paper in the Journal for Quality and Participation, as reported by Maclean’s magazine in Canada.

However, others stand by these surveys as one useful, though not infallible, tool for measuring employee engagement. “In my view, engagement surveys are a valuable component in an overall engagement measurement system, and if designed correctly, will be able to elicit information from your people about a myriad of things,” said Chris Curtin, chief executive – AA Insurance.

Their usefulness lies, in part, in the anonymous, and potentially ‘brutal’, feedback that the reviews elicit, according to Curtin. This allows an organisation to identify issues and trends that could, if left unattended, undermine business performance. Curtin also advocates conducting qualitative research. “The richness comes from the forums we have with people face-to-face to discuss the survey results, including any themes that become evident in the freeform feedback,” Curtin said.

Similarly, Shona Glentworth, managing director – Implement & Associates, believes that such surveys work best when qualitative research is conducted alongside them. “A lot of surveys are really good if they’ve got a focus group type approach or some sort of discussion that actually happens alongside it so that you can get a bit of commentary,” she said.

When conducting focus groups, it’s vital to select the facilitator and participants who will make a useful contribution, and to ensure that there is a clear understanding regarding what will happen to the information gathered.

Another important point to consider, when tracking employee engagement, is that surveys only provide a ‘snapshot’ of company culture. HR professionals and business leaders shouldn’t over-react to tiny bumps or irregularities. “You do need to remind yourself of what you are trying to achieve as a business, and what you need to do short, medium and long term, rather than potentially just react,” Curtin advised.

Glentworth recommends doing them every couple of years and concurs that their value is in the broader picture that they give. “You don’t want to start to react to little blips. It’s that long-term trend that I think is more important than a little bit of noise along the way,” Glentworth explained.

Key HR takeaways:

  • Remember that the employee engagement survey is just one tool and that it’s essential to have other ways of tracking the health of your organisational culture
  • Consider assembling a focus group alongside the employee engagement survey in order to discuss the survey results and context
  • Don’t react to ‘blips’ but take a wider view of long term trends, and don’t lose sight of your organisation’s goals
  • Encourage everyone to participate
  • The best way to do this is to demonstrate clearly that your organisation values its employees’ feedback and will use the information appropriately


  • by Dr Tim Baker 25/02/2013 3:58:57 PM

    I agree with much of the points raised in this article.

    Any survey is only as good as the follow-up done. oo often organisations spend sizable sums of money on the administering of the survey and very little is done with the data.

    I also agree that qualitative data gives a more indepth view of what people are thinking and needs to be conducted too.

  • by Alex Mills 25/02/2013 4:08:17 PM

    We recently conducted a free employee engagement survey using the Survey Monkey tool and the feedback has been invaluable and not of a lesser quality than when we were paying for a much more sophisticated and longer tool.

  • by Garry Pearce 25/02/2013 4:23:13 PM

    We investigated external survey costs and ended up running it in-house (anonymously)with good take up results. The article is correct in that this is only one measure of engagement.

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