17 ways to discover how engaged your employees are

Companies go to great lengths to determine what their customers want, but most forget about the needs of their employees. That’s a big mistake.


Any sound marketing program is based on understanding the needs of your customers.

We run surveys, interviews and focus groups to get insight into customers’ likes and dislikes. We conduct usability studies and examine buyer behavior. We use social media listening programs to determine product preferences, service successes, or opportunities for improvement. We segment audiences into “influencers” and “purchasers,” and delve down in detail to respond appropriately and spur action.

But when a company decides to improve the engagement of its employees, it typically uses only one method to gather information: the dreaded annual employee survey.

Sure, employee surveys can give broad results and highlight global trends, but they’re ineffective for understanding:

  • The working environment and attitudes of specific geographic regions.
  • Information by level, position, department or manager.
  • In-depth knowledge of root causes. (Five-point scales often skew results, don’t allow for explanation, measure the wrong issues, and more.)
  • Trust levels of both senior and direct management.
  • Timely information. (A lot can happen in a year: mergers, acquisitions, leadership changes, new product introductions, and more.) Annual surveys are just a snapshot in time.

Many employees don’t believe surveys are truly anonymous, especially in smaller departments. Surveys also have a notoriously low level of response because employees don’t see any direct correlation between their input and changes in the workplace.

Managers ignore or even complain about the results, offering vague explanations or simply not making improvements a priority.

Julie Cogin, head of the School of Organization and Management at the Australian School of Business, says many companies:

“…just don’t do it right, allowing managers to game the system, and using the surveys to make themselves look better. Employers have to be prepared to make improvements and then communicate these changes back to employees-‘This is what we have learnt, this is what we’re going to do and this is what we’re not going to do.'”

So, what’s the alternative?

Think like a marketer and gather intelligence, not just data.

Find out what your employees think by presenting ways to give feedback and discover evidence of engagement. Then hire an outside group of experts to gather and interpret the information; it’s almost always the most effective way to get honest feedback.

1. Consider holding focus groups by level, and one-on-one interviews for those who would like to give private feedback. (Interview managers separately to get honest feedback.)

2. Conduct surveys that include open-ended questions. Get the best results by using both general and customized questions that allow question “piping” to drill down by tenure, position and location. Introduce surveys with a brief, sincere video, and invite employees to write directly to an unbiased senior source.

3. Hold focus groups by level. Again, keep managers separate to get honest feedback.

4. Study the comments on your intranet articles. Every major announcement or event should invite comments.

5. Look at blogs by managers. What’s the tone? Are they respectful of employees? Do they instill pride in the company?

6. Rate how well—and consistently—the company implements employee recognition programs.

7. How often does the company hold “all-hands” meetings? What topics do the meetings cover? Are they interesting to employees or just to management? Are the presentations available online after the meetings? Are managers trained to be effective presenters and storytellers? Do managers invite employees to speak?

8. How effective are department meetings? Does the manager arrive on time? Is there an agenda sent out prior to the event? Are action items collected and communicated, and are deadlines established?

9. Does your company have an effective onboarding process for new hires? Is it mandatory?

10. How well do you communicate career paths? Do employees have the opportunity to interview for jobs in other groups as well as grow in their current positions?

11. Are collaboration tools in place to allow employees to share best practices and ask for expertise?

12. Do you celebrate success?

13. Are a variety of communication tools accessible to allow user choice (e.g. podcasts, video, online articles, etc.)? Is the content compelling?

14. Are managers encouraged to learn how to take—and give—feedback? Can they listen without emotion?

15. Analyze social media on company-related sites and glassdoor.com.

16. Study the trends you discover through exit interviews. Segment them if possible.

17. Look at how outside groups and industry analysts write about how you treat employees, and how you rate as an employer.

It’s key to look at all the data both at a micro and macro level. Roll up the data to show general trends and understand where each department is succeeding and where it can grow and change. If possible, be transparent with the results and respond quickly with planned actions, even if it simply means setting dates to study the problem and get more information.

Finally, what are you going to do with all this wonderful material to increase engagement, productivity and, ultimately, the bottom line?

According to the 2011 BlessingWhite Employee Engagement Report, “Engagement surveys without visible follow-up actions may actually decrease engagement levels, suggesting that organizations should think twice before flipping the switch on measurement without 100 per cent commitment for action planning based on the results.”

If you want to create loyalty, be committed to your employees just like you’re committed to your customers.

Mimi Garrity Denman manages Denman Communications. A version of this article originally appeared on the Denman Communications blog.

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