Thinking about Firing your Employee Engagement Partner?

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There is no doubt that most organizations faced falling employee engagement measures last year.  We all knew that 2009 had been a challenging economic year and that we may have cut a little too deep or managed our communications poorly as we rolled out pay freezes, forced furloughs, staff reductions, and slashed benefits programs. But, last year the impact of those decisions started to come home to roost – Engagement surveys were sent out and numbers were down.

Solution providers in the space were quick to share that numbers were down and highlight the possible storm clouds on the horizon, leading to reduced performance and turn-over in high-potentials and critical talent roles.

“Broadly, organizations face something we’ve labeled an "engagement gap."… only 21% of our sample are engaged,… Worse yet, fully 38% are either wholly or partly disengaged”   Towers Perrin  

 “One-Third of Companies Are Troubled by Low Employee Engagement… Employee engagement—the willingness of workers to go the extra mile at work—took a big hit during the recession and has not bounced back…”   BCG and WFPMA

“Low employee engagement is pervasive — nearly half of the world's employees are not engaged. This means that for every employee who is contributing to the success of your organization, there's another employee not putting forth maximum effort.”     Aon Hewitt

Last year was the calm before the storm; voluntary turnover rates were way below average as employees hunkered down and waited for the economy to chug back to life.  This year, searches are up – candidates are on the market, and if your employee engagement scores were down last year and you didn’t take advantage of the time to address concerns – you’d better believe your best talent is on the market today.

Most HR leaders were already aware of the hazard. With or without their employee surveys, they were aware that morale was low and business performance was at risk. They shared their concerns with leadership when decisions were made, and they expected the employee survey data to support their warnings.  But some HR leaders faced an unexpected challenge when employee engagement scores came in for 2010: Engagement data wasn’t low enough!

You might be scratching your head at this point – but keep in mind that HR professionals have many ways to assess employee engagement; glassdoor.com, exit interviews, manager complaints, employee relations issues, customer complaints, and so on and so forth.  So when employee surveys come back with only slightly lower scores, or, even worse, flat engagement scores – and they know from these other sources that engagement has plummeted, many feel it might be time to re-think their approach to assessing and reporting on employee engagement.

Even when employee engagement scores matched HR expectations, HR is being challenged to develop a more strategic approach to assessing and managing employee engagement. In our 2010 survey on Talent and Learning measurement, 71% of HR leaders with an executive level scorecard, ranked Employee Engagement as a key metric in their HR scorecards. It was the number one metric selected by all participants, coming ahead of more traditional HR metrics such as retention rates and performance ratings.  In taking a fresh look at this important topic, many HR leaders are looking at both their current solution providers as well as their own internal approach to engagement.  Many are questioning their current practices; including benchmarking, engagement drivers, analysis models and even the role of employee engagement in assessing leadership roles and company culture.  They are also looking for solution providers who can partner strategically on these questions and help them develop a complete engagement strategy.  

In the last 3 weeks, I’ve had four different member calls on employee engagement – they were looking for insights on where we saw this market heading.  Many were thinking about replacing their current solution providers, some were just trying to figure out how to partner more closely, while others were looking to increase the strategic connection between their employee engagement efforts and meaningful outcomes for their business and talent strategies.

  • A small financial organization, with retail environments all over the US was looking to replace an existing climate survey they were using sporadically across the company with no programs for follow up. Although current climate measures weren’t horrible, they knew they had some deep rooted issues that needed to be addressed due to the 50% turn-over rate in field locations. They were hoping we could provide some insights on solution providers who could balance their practical need to assess engagement and help them build a strategy that their small HR function could support.    
  • A large technology organization recently split from its parent company – and they wanted to look at connecting their employee engagement strategy to their organizational culture strategy. They needed to help their employee's become comfortable with the innovative but less structured company culture that would be needed to survive. They knew that this change would make many employees uncomfortable, and possibly concerned about their roles.  So they were looking for their employee engagement efforts to assess the capacity for culture shift and the gap between their current culture and desired culture. They wanted to know if that was possible – and if so what were the practical aspects of that type of effort.
  • A division within one of the world’s largest business service companies was very concerned because their annual engagement scores were taking a dip. More frustrating was the fact that the decisions concerning how the engagement survey was conducted, which internal samples were selected, and how it was rolled out were handled at a much higher corporate level. They wanted to understand their options in connecting their enterprise approach to a more practical divisional strategy. A committee had been formed to develop recommendations on not only how to improve the engagement scores, but how to make them more meaningful throughout the division. They hadn’t considered asking their current enterprise employee engagement partner for help with this challenge; something our research showed was a valuable first step. Most of the employee engagement vendors in the market have a ton of best practices on how to connect engagement data to actions at the divisional level. Often corporate HR functions select only minimal services from their solution providers or worse neglect to include them on critical discussions concerning the enterprise engagement strategy.
  • A large financial organization located in the Northern US felt their survey data was just too flat – especially after the last few turbulent years for their industry. They were actually choosing to take a break on their annual survey, as they felt it was providing very little value in relation to both business impact and insights into how to motivate an employee-base they were concerned had become complacent and comfortable.  They were taking the year to re-think their entire approach to employee engagement:  Should they care about benchmarked indexes, how often should they survey, what actions should be tied to survey data, what type of analysis and consulting should they expect from their partnership with a solution provider in this space? Do we have the right partner for our company?

These conversations highlighted a few challenges companies are facing today:

  • Many companies are still unsure of their goals for assessing employee engagement – but they know it is important and are willing to invest resources and time to improve their employee engagement approach.
  • Many organizations are struggling to shift their companies focus from the employee engagement survey to the need to create a full employee engagement strategy.
  • Most companies know something needs to change, but they are unsure of what elements in their approach need to change?
  • The solution providers in the market are also trying to make changes and highlight the risks; but are often left out of critical conversations their clients are holding on employee engagement strategies. 

For me most of the questions come back to the need for an Employee Engagement Strategy? Knowing what you expect to accomplish with your engagement efforts and the role you expect your partner to play in these efforts is critical. Our research found that organizations who had documented a full employee engagement strategy were able to answer:

  • What the definition of employee engagement was for their company? Where that definition had come from and why it was still relevant today?
  • What the goal of improving employee engagement was for their organization?
  • What the best way to assess engagement was in their specific culture? If their approach had been regionalized and customized to their audience needs.
  • What followed the assessment efforts: analysis, communication, actions, follow-up, expectations set
  • How employee engagement measures and data were used to make talent and business decisions in their organizations?
  • What type of relationship they would have with their service provders and how they would manage that relationship?
  • And most of all, they had proven through either solution provider research or their own analysis efforts that improved engagement (as defined by their current process) was leading to the business outcomes their company needed?

The market is changing and decisions concerning the use of employee engagement data to influence business and talent decisions are weighing heavily on HR leaders today. As Engagement scores continue to show up on executive score cards, board-level documents, or even in analyst reviews concerning the health and wellness of an organizations talent – companies are looking for confirmation that HR can prove the validity of their engagement efforts.  No two companies are alike, and as such no single employee engagement strategy or solution provider meets the needs of every company. Our research found organizations that had very strategic relationships with their solution providers, many lasting more than a decade, with solid data supporting the impact of their efforts. While other organizations were taking painful steps to change not only their approach to engagement, but their solution providers as well. None of these decisions were made lightly.

Our research on this topic, Employee Engagement: A Changing Market Place, provides insights on what is driving these market changes, the growing importance of this  measure in the talent management space, as well as details on employee engagement strategies, key solution provider questions, and selection best practices.  

We are always looking for best practices to share on this topic, so if you've recently implemented a new Employee Engagement Strategy or have already proven the impact of your employee engagement efforts in your unique organization – We’d love to chat about your experiences and the impact of your efforts. Please feel free to contact me at Stacey.harris@berisin.com.

Stacey Harris

Principal Analyst, HR and Talent

Robin Erickson

Vice President, Talent Acquisition Research Leader / Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Robin leads talent acquisition, engagement, and retention research for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. Recognized as a thought leader in her areas of expertise, Robin offers more than 20 years of experience, including prior experience in talent strategies consulting and research for Deloitte’s Human Capital practice. Robin led Deloitte’s global Talent 2020 longitudinal survey series and her work has appeared in several issues of Deloitte Review and in Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends reports. She holds a doctoral degree in organizational communication and change, as well as a master’s in communication, from Northwestern University. Robin also has a master’s degree in theology from Northern Seminary and a bachelor of arts from the University of Chicago.

7 thoughts on “Thinking about Firing your Employee Engagement Partner?

  1. Do you think that employee engagement is even important to <a href="http://www.jacksontherapy.com">physical therapist jobs</a>, too? Personally, I think is, even more than at a lot of other jobs. Physical therapists are busy taking care of other people every day, and they are in high-stress situations, so the organization shouldn’t add to that.

  2. Great blog topic. Here is an alternative approach to employee engagement that stresses improvement over simple measurement.

    Traditional employee engagement surveys, in my opinion, are administered too infrequently to be of much help. These surveys turn employee engagement from a business priority into a once-a-year afterthought.

    Employee engagement is simply too important to measure only once a year. After all, employee engagement/motivation is the master metric that drives everything else. If we can get our engagement scores to go up, then, theoretically, every desirable financial, operational and HR metric should go up with it because employee motivation affects everything going on inside our companies.

    Nobody would even think of measuring cash flow or profitability only once a year, yet most companies reflexively measure employee engagement on a 12 month or 24 month cycle. This is simply un-businesslike. Do we really want to wait a year to find out that our people are malfunctioning?

    Here are two inexpensive pulse surveys (mini engagement surveys) that can be administered on a monthly or quarterly basis to make employee engagement an ongoing priority as opposed to a once-a-year afterthought.

    1) Energy survey: http://www.eepulse.com/
    2) Horsepower Survey: http://horsepowersurvey.com

    Both of these surveys measure a dynamic variable: "How do you feel about your work." If you feel bad, there is a problem that needs to be investigated and fixed.

    These pulse surveys provide a great excuse for supervisors to sit down with their direct reports on a regular basis to proactively hash out any pain-points revealed by the survey. This way, supervisors can resolve workplace issues before they balloon into problems. You can think of this approach as preventative maintenance for your people. What do you think about using a pulse survey as opposed to an annual survey?

  3. By the way, responding to the first post, Bersin & Associates does not do engagement surveys – we just study the markets and help organizations decide how to best implement an engagement strategy…

  4. I feel that the real point has been lost "in translation." Let’s get real… the promises made about business results and the link to employee engagement have fallen strikingly short. Yes, the employee engagement measures are critical, but if not coupled with the right process to enable manager development and employee connection to customers – why bother? Frankly everyone claims a validated set of question items, but that is very sophomoric. Taking 2-6 months for results is a travesty, not measuring at the right level is anything but client centric and not having a solid and "scientifically validated" process on the back end should be a crime. Clients paying six figures for "results" should be asking specifically about the "change process" not the measurement process. My experience is that everyone talks about an alleged back end action planning process, but validated results show this (as is or has been) driving outcomes down versus up. If the back end process doesn’t last a full year and the representative selling you the survey can’t paint a very clear and vivid systematic process – don’t hire them! If the current vendor cannot – then fire them and give the 30 days notice to cancel the 3 year contract (they don’t lock you into anything).

    Bottom Line:
    SIMPLE QUESTION – Have your business results improved at the same level of employee engagement?
    Curt W. Coffman
    Co-Author, First Break all the Rules
    http://www.coffmanorganization.com

  5. Hi Commenter, Thank you for your honest response. This was in no way meant as a solicitation – as we (Bersin & Associates) offer no Employee Engagement Services or consulting.

    I only wanted to share some concerning conversations I have recently had with companies on this topic and make everyone aware that we have some research that could help with their questions on the topic. Our research does not have insights on what type of employee engagement theory an organization should follow or which is best. We do share some helpful best practices on how organizations are changing their approach to employee engagement, changing relationships with their solution partners, and selecting solution providers if that is their need.

    But I can see how my quick blog may have been interpreted; so based on your comment I have added some additional data and insights to give a fuller picture of the challenges in the market today.

    We truly appreciate the feedback and look forward to a long discussion on this topic.

    Thank you,
    Stacey Harris

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