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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Employee Engagement Surveys

Conducting an employee engagement survey alone is likely to lead to decreased levels of engagement

Let's face it, we all love a good survey. We like to give our opinion, hear about the results and find out what's really going on. But companies planning an employee survey better be ready for some meaningful follow-up. If you ask for an opinion and then are seen not to act upon it, be prepared for the loss of your followers' trust. Surveying alone might damage morale and increase cynicism.

In our latest study, we asked nearly 3,000 North American workers the following question: What is your organization doing to increase employee engagement? The chart below illustrates their responses across BlessingWhite's 5 levels of engagement. For a refresher on how we define engagement overall and these 5 levels, read our May 2008 eNews.

The Good: Survey + Action = More Engaged Employees

Nearly half (47%) of all employees who said their organization conducted a survey and demonstrated visible actions at the organization or department level are fully engaged. This finding was consistent across all regions and organization sizes in our study. This is good news for your organization if you invested time and money to collect data and follow through.

The Bad: Beware the Survey Slump

Meanwhile, of those employees who experienced a survey and saw no follow-up, less than a quarter (24%) are engaged. This is three percentage points worse than for employees who report no action at all, suggesting that surveying and doing nothing can actually decrease engagement levels. If your organization is unable or unwilling to act on the insights gleaned from a survey, don't go there. You may lose credibility.

If you want to "take the pulse" of your workforce, consider using less visible options: small focus groups or accessible HR metrics (e.g., retention data and exit interviews) to identify workforce issues you can address. And when you do take action on survey data, make sure employees understand the connection between your initiatives and the data. Don't assume they'll recognize that organizational changes or your behavior as a leader are directly in response to the feedback they gave you in the survey.

The Ugly: Crying "Wolf!"

Although surveying without follow-up can backfire, there is another sure-fire way to make a dent in your employees' engagement levels: Pay lip service to engagement. In our study, fewer than 2 in 10 (19%) employees who replied "a lot of talk, but no action" are fully engaged. Nearly 1 in 3 (32%) are actually disengaged. Managers who talk about the importance of engaged employees or promise to act on engagement issues can severely damage their team's contribution and satisfaction if they focus only on results and fail to walk their talk.

An Alternative: Talk to Your People

We know that acting on employee engagement findings is harder than sending out the survey link, especially if your company has thousands of employees in multiple locations and managers who are stretched thin balancing competing priorities. Even the best-intentioned managers may struggle to find time for an "engagement task force" or executing their "action plan for increasing team engagement."

Our findings suggest that you may be better off skipping the survey entirely and encouraging managers to talk to their people. 37% of employees whose manager had talked to them about their engagement even though there was no apparent organization-wide initiative are fully engaged. While that's not as promising as organizations that survey and act, it beats doing nothing, surveying without follow-up, or being all talk.

This approach is likely to be more cost-effective than a large-scale survey. It also leverages what managers should already be doing daily in their role: having conversations. Here are a few tips on what those conversations should look like.

Conducting a Meaningful Engagement Review

Just taking the time to check in with an employee to ensure that you're on the same page and are doing all that you need to do to support them demonstrates your commitment to his or her success. It strengthens your work relationship, which is a key engagement driver.

This is an opportunity to:

  • Learn/confirm the employee's point of view on job satisfaction and personal success.
  • Answer questions and provide clarity on what maximum contribution looks like.
  • Demonstrate your support.
  • Strengthen your work relationship.
  • Begin an ongoing dialogue.

It is not the time to:

  • Provide long-overdue performance feedback.
  • Conduct a career coaching conversation.
  • Share all your thoughts on what the employee should do.

Make sure to:

  • Set a positive tone of partnership. This is not a performance appraisal!
  • Talk about the importance of the employee's job and how it fits with the company's larger goals.
  • Discuss your employee's top priorities. You may find you have different perceptions, which can have a negative impact on engagement.
  • Ask "What support do you need from me?" and "What kind of feedback is most useful to you?"
  • Talk about ways to use the employee's talents (the ones that this person enjoys using). Our research indicates that "more opportunities to do what I do best" is a common driver of satisfaction.
  • Ask about job conditions What gets in the way of great accomplishments? What gets in the way of a great day at work? What does the employee enjoy most?
  • Discuss how you work together. The more you and your employee know about each other's work style, the stronger your partnership which correlates to higher engagement.
  • Agree to meet again. You can't have one discussion and check off the box that you've addressed your employee's engagement successfully. This conversation lays a foundation for specific discussions about performance, development, career management, etc.


The findings referenced in this article are based on the preliminary results of BlessingWhite's latest employee engagement study, which compares more than 2,800 North American post-recession survey results with pre-recession data. The full global report based on more than 10,000 survey respondents and interviews with senior leaders will be available in November 2010. Register at to receive a copy hot off the ePress in November!

For more information on how BlessingWhite can help your organization reach the next level, call 1.800.222.1349 or email

Copyright 2010 BlessingWhite, Inc.
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Volume 10, Issue 10
October 2010

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