Weighing a pig is fun, but it doesn't make it any fatter. Photo: Shutterstock

Thursday 12th November 2015

Weighing the pig

Does HR really understand engagement surveys?

Many HR people love – and I mean love – engagement surveys. After all, they’re what elevate HR to the big league, right?

Engagement surveys give us wonderful things such as benchmarks, percentages and measurable journeys. They mean we can stand in front of boards and talk authoritatively about improvements: ‘Discretionary effort is up 14%’, we might say, or ’Pursuant to that intervention, 43.8% of our people are now less likely to leave in the next twelve months.’

Engagements surveys are like the best tool we ever had. Ever. Aren’t they?

Well, maybe not. Listen to Martyn Dicker, HR Director of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) and Chair of the Engage for Success Not-For-Profit Thought & Action Group. He suggests that our grasp of engagement in general, and surveys in particular, isn’t actually as great as we’d like to think.

Points pointed out

Maybe you haven’t heard of CIFF, but it’s the world’s largest philanthropic foundation focused on children, with an endowment valued at over $4.5 billion. The brand is pretty sub-radar. That’s because the organisation exists to distribute funds to partners, rather than to deliver programmes directly.

The key to CIFF is that it was co-founded by a hedge-fund manager. That means, says Dicker, the culture is one in which data is cherished. ‘Without measurement, we are guessing,’ states the CIFF website.

Martyn Dicker

So when you come to the table at CIFF, it helps to know your numbers.

‘I once told a meeting here that a metric had improved by five per cent,’ Dicker smiles. ‘I was soon told I was wrong – the metric had actually gone up five percentage points, not by five per cent. I’d never faced that type of interrogation of data before.’

Listless staff

Dicker’s suspicions about engagement surveys began with a discussion at his Engage for Success group. There was a disparity between what members’ surveys said, and actual behaviours observed in their workplaces.

Organisations were recording high engagements scores, but their HRDs were seeing many employees who were listless and unconvinced.

Organisations with a strong sense of purpose – such as many third sector organisations, highly innovative firms or anyone else with a mission genuinely beyond profit  –­ might boast high employee engagement scores,’ says Dicker. ‘But sometimes that high level of engagement is in spite the employing organisation, not because of it.’

Employers such as Oxfam, Google, Apple or The Guardian hire many people with ‘intrinsic motivation’. These people are engaged because of the cause – not necessarily because of the employer.

‘Many organisations use common measures to produce an employee engagement index,’ says Dicker, ‘such as whether employees plan to stay, demonstrate discretionary effort or act as organisational advocates. Unsurprisingly, when people are strongly drawn to the mission, the scores for this index will be high.’

Crucially then, HR needs to distinguish between this intrinsic motivation and specific engagement with the employer. Fine. But how?

Right brains

Firstly, Dicker suggests, you need to ensure you’re asking the right questions. Asking employees about satisfaction in their work is one thing. Asking about satisfaction with specific aspects of the employment experience is quite another.

Secondly, you need to ensure that you get the right people to interpret the data. Big HR functions may well have these individuals internally. But smaller functions might want to pull in experts from other parts of the business to help, or seek external expertise.

On the subject of interpretation, one controversial practice is the conflation of ‘Agree’ and ‘Strongly Agree’ scores to provide a combined, positive score.

Every tick counts? Pic: Shutterstock

‘It seems like a good idea, enabling simple reporting,’ Dicker says. ‘But in ignoring everything other than the two positive scores, you are paying no attention to whether the remaining staff feel ambivalent, disagree or even strongly disagree with the question in hand.’

Pig data

Thirdly, you need to actually do something with data.

‘It’s only through action that this becomes worthwhile,’ warns Dicker. Only by the implementation of ideas, such as celebrating successes, role-modelling and aligning with other initiatives, can the real benefits of employee engagement be harvested.

Lastly, there’s no substitute for robust engagement interventions. Dicker enthusiastically cites the work of David McLeod and Engage for Success here.

Their four key enablers are: leadership providing a strong, strategic narrative; managers focusing on people as individuals, and improving performance by coaching; an influential employee voice; and organisational integrity (in other words, no ‘say-do’ gap between stated values and day-to-day behaviours).

And let’s not forget that ‘weighing the pig’ idea. For the uninitiated, the analogy is a criticism aimed at those who think measurement is the be-all and end-all of performance improvement.

‘Just weighing a pig doesn’t actually make it any fatter,’ says Dicker. ‘HR can be guilty of seeing a good engagement score as the purpose of the function. It isn’t ­– it’s just a yardstick to help you go further.’

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.