Interpreting the Results of the Employee Engagement Survey

3 Easy-to-Follow Steps to Understanding What’s Behind the Numbers

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We’ve become a numbers culture. And workers, instead of going through an annual performance review, often have to deal with perpetual performance reviews. Many organizations now rely on these mini surveys, deferring to data and the precision of numbers to judge and qualify workers.

Great numbers translate to great workers. Numbers are completely unbiased and will shield us from nepotism and favoritism. A high score means everything, especially to those working in service industries. The best workers, based on these scores, will get promotions. It’s fair, right?

There are two things we must question – the validity of the numbers and our interpretation of them. Are we “sacrificing accuracy and insight for efficiency”, suggests data scientist and author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy Cathy O’Neil in an interview with The Atlantic Monthly Magazine. The article, Living in an Extreme Meritocracy is Exhausting (Victor Tan Chen, October 26, 2016) discusses how this numbers game of meritocracy is at odds with ideals that are distinctly American including civic mindedness, equality and grace. But when work performance is reduced to a number, we’re stuck in a bit of a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest workplace that can feel more like The Hunger Games than Boys in a Boat. And by becoming a numbers meritocracy, we’re trading nuance and discernment for an easy answer.

As leaders in employee engagement surveys, we discuss with our clients the importance of interpreting the results of the employee engagement survey. Any organization’s greatest assets are her human resources – her workforce. Here are 3 easy-to-follow tips to interpret your engagement survey results, both qualifying and quantifying.

1. What is the percentage of employees who completed the survey? There should be a 70 – 80% completion rate. Anything under that points to issues with communication, organizational trust and culture, and/or past bad experiences with surveys. “It’s not worth my time. Nothing will change.” Also, think about a swath of employees that might be underrepresented in the survey – those who don’t use computers regularly. Considering all these scenarios is the first step toward interpreting the data.

2. Look at the numbers and ask yourself these questions:

  • Are the results statistically meaningful? If 7 out of 10 respondents strongly agree with something, you need to dig deeper. If 700 out of 1000 respondents strongly agree with something, you have a trend and the result is meaningful. Understanding the statistical meaning of results is particularly important when interpreting results in demographic groups of the organization.
  • What’s the difference between overall benchmarked and average scores? Benchmarked scores will give you the best indication of how well your organization is doing. Raw average scores can be deceiving, as they’re just based on the organization on its own without any point of comparison.
  • Why do I care about standard deviations and frequency distributions? “Low standard deviation” means higher agreement, meaning the employees scored the same items similarly. “High standard deviation” means a disparity in scoring with employees. When there’s high standard deviation, we recommend you look at the bi-modal distribution. Don’t be sucked into “averages” here, instead look to see if there are clusters of low and high scores on the same items. Oftentimes two demographic subgroups will score things very differently. If you rely on average scores, you might miss out on some telling information.
  • What are your relative scores? Compare scores with similar items across the board. With our Engagement Dashboard, we save you the time and have grouped items in the four corners of engagement: engagement with organization, engagement with my manager, strategic alignment, and competency.

3. Go beyond the numbers: The comments are the heart of any engagement survey process and interpretation. Keep in mind that all comments elicited in our Focal EE survey are after an employee scores something low. Keep that in mind because, if not, you’ll feel overwhelmed with negativity.
  • Read through all the comments to get a feel for what employees are saying.
  • Compare comments to numeric results of categories. Is there a theme?
  • Compare demographic subgroups and categories of comments.

Employee engagement and productivity is more than a number. The nuance of interpreting data is critical for a successful employee engagement survey process. The implications of the numbers game can be damaging for both the work environment and individual worker. “Indeed, the desire for an efficiency achieved through a never-ending gauntlet of appraisals is unhealthy. It exhausts workers with the need to perform well at all times. It pushes them into a constant competition with each other, vying for the highest rankings that, by definition, only a few can get. It convinces people—workers, managers, students—that individual metrics are what really matter, and that any failure to dole out pay raises, grades, and other rewards based on them is unfair.”

As the article says, this numbers meritocracy is exhausting. Use the numbers wisely. Interpret wisely. Know your organization and workers – that’s something a number can’t do.

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