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Workplace Engagement InsightsLatest Employee Engagement NewsWorkplace Engagement7 Most Common Criticisms of Employee Engagement (And What I Have to Say in Response)

7 Most Common Criticisms of Employee Engagement (And What I Have to Say in Response)

Why are so many people taking pot shots at the concept of employee engagement? It’s simple – the idea has finally become mainstream.

It’s often when business ideas begin to pick up steam that detractors come out of the woodwork.

I’ve read an increasing number of critiques of employee engagement and employee engagement surveys lately, and I would like to take this opportunity to argue the case for employee engagement against the 7 most common criticisms:

Employee engagementCriticism 1: Employee Engagement Benefits Are Correlational, Not Causal

How many areas of our lives depend on correlational evidence, without ever being able to show a cause-and-effect relationship?

Sure, it’s valuable to find causation wherever we can. Absolutely. But as a former CEO, what I find most important is results, not technical academics. If every time you take a specific action, you get a predictable, desirable business result, that is what matters.

The academics of causation vs. correlation are useful, up to a point. If I see a practical application for something that gets me tangible results and gives me an advantage over competitors, causation doesn’t matter as much anymore.

A positive correlation is proven to exist between employee engagement and higher retention, productivity, revenue growth rate, and more.

Of course, in rare cases outliers do exist. “Employee Engagement: A Review of Current Research and Its Implications” by The Conference Board features some examples of highly engaged firms with a lower profitability than their competitors, or disengaged firms that outperform their competitors. But I must stress, these are outliers.

In the vast majority of cases, employee engagement improves the bottom line. Does it matter whether it’s correlational or causal? Not likely.

Criticism 2: Employee Engagement Surveys Can Be “Gamed”

Every profiling tool, from personality assessments to surveys, can be “gamed” by the bad apples in the culture, especially if the culture is a bad one. In fact, I’ve watched this is action with 360 review tools, like the Myers Briggs, DISC, and more.

If you’re just doing a survey or review to get the numbers, you’re not doing it properly. Are you taking corrective actions? Are you introducing appropriate training? Are you making changes in processes? If you aren’t, you won’t find success with any survey.

My response to this criticism is to quote Winston Churchill: “Democracy is fundamentally flawed, I just don’t know of a better alternative.” So too, with all types of profiling and measurement tools.

Criticism 3: Issues when Compensation is Linked to Employee Engagement

As with any tool designed to build high performance workplace cultures, employee engagement surveys shouldn’t be linked to employees’ merit pay, bonuses, salary, stock options, and so on. A lot of companies try to do this, and end up causing unnecessary problems.

The purpose of an employee engagement survey, along with other similar tools, is to improve internal processes and give leaders a direction for personal development. Studies show that compensation isn’t actually linked to employee engagement in a meaningful way.

Keep compensation discussions separate from employee engagement scores. Including compensation in employee engagement surveys and discussions only leads to skewed results and disgruntled employees.

Criticism 4: Employee Engagement Surveys Are Useless after 4 to 5 Years

This may occur. But it can be avoided if your company is committed to: 1) creating a culture of engaged employees, 2) doing random sample tracking between surveys, 3) taking action on the survey data, and 4) including employees in the solution.

If you’re not doing these things, of course the survey isn’t useful in your performance management process!

Criticism 5: It Takes Too Long to Take Action on the Employee Engagement Survey

You must set a reasonable time frame for rolling out employee engagement results. Take into account that you’ll need to consult with employees about changes or issues before implementing any actions.

The key is to do fewer things, and set priorities to ensure you’re focusing on changes that will have an impact by the time the next survey is launched.

By all means, have a sense of urgency; but make sure it’s focused on the right initiatives and is tempered by an appropriate time frame. As with all things, we can’t have everything, right now.

Criticism 6: Getting Specific Ratings

So many companies are stuck on trying to make a ‘top’ list, like ‘Top 50 Employer’ or ‘Great Places to Work’. 

Unfortunately, these aren’t the types of goals that will get results. After all, a ranking is relative – you’re only as good as the companies you’re compared to.

The real question is: what will make you a winner in your market? (See the next criticism for more on this.)

The employee engagement survey needs to work for your specific organization. The survey provider needs to work with you to drive business results, not to get you on the latest ‘Top 10’ list.

Criticism 7: What about External Benchmarking?

A common complaint is that many employee engagement surveys (mine included) don’t provide external benchmarking. My response to this critique is a bit more education on the subject:

I agree with many others in the field, who believe that external benchmarking isn’t necessary, or even useful. You need to figure out where your business currently is, make changes to improve, and then see the outcome of your efforts.

In short, you must measure against yourself, not against others. It’s the only way to fully quantify your progress.

Employee Engagement Matters; Employee Engagement Gets Results

If you aren’t measuring and taking action to engage employees, you’re missing out on a low cost method to beat out your competitors.

The single largest asset you have on your books are your people! Measuring engagement is the first step to realizing this crucial fact.

When I consult with companies, I look at their SG&A on their income statement. In almost every case, the cost of salaries and benefits is 40% or more of all non-product expenses.

I suggest that business owners need to look at this significant cost as a lease for an asset. After all, when you hire someone, you expect that person will be with the company for many years. Any reasonable cap rate on that dollar amount would reveal how essential your ‘people’ asset truly is.

Employee engagement is not a magic solution – but it may be the single most important strategic move business owners can make to outperform their competition.

So many companies are not measuring and taking action on engagement … or if they are, they’re only doing it to satisfy a Board of Directors. As a former CEO, I can say with confidence that it’s great to have competitors like that! That means I can make my company more productive, more profitable, and a better place to work. I can retain the best people, while all the disengaged employees work for my competitors.

Remember: you can’t manage what you don’t measure!

>> Our employee engagement surveys will give you the data you need to start improving engagement. Contact us now to get started.

Get my free cheatsheet for “Improving Employee Engagement in Just 10 Minutes”.

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Written by Dwight Lacey

Dwight Lacey

Dwight is the President at Workplace Engagement Insights. He leads Workplace Engagement Insights with a clear understanding of the latest employee engagement research, survey best practices, and leadership styles that create successful businesses.

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