Employee Surveys Waste Time, Cash

By Gerst, Robert | Winnipeg Free Press, January 19, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Employee Surveys Waste Time, Cash

Gerst, Robert, Winnipeg Free Press

CALGARY -- Each year, hundreds of thousands of people, employees from the executive suite to the front lines, are asked to complete an employee survey. Almost $1 billion worth of engagement surveys are sold in North America each year.

The case for improving employee engagement is impressive. The Hay Group, a major survey provider, says that "high levels of employee engagement can boost revenue growth by up to two and a half times." Aon Hewitt notes: "20 per cent of the organization's (most engaged) employees create 80 per cent of the value" and Gallup, the polling company, claims that "actively disengaged employees... cost the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity".

Numbers like these get attention. It's worth spending $1 billion to get $350 billion back. But is any of it working? Is business getting a return on the investment?

The increasingly obvious answer is no. Worse, these surveys are likely doing more harm than good.

The first cracks in the employee engagement hype appeared in Peter Hutton's What Are Your Staff Trying to Tell You?, published in 2008. It concluded that, whatever it was, it wasn't what the employee survey said it was. Last year, Business of HR blogger John Hollon, called engagement surveys a mindless waste producing terrible results.

Now we know why. According to Understanding Employee Engagement and Trust; The New Math of Engagement Surveys to be published next week in the American Society for Quality's, Journal of Quality and Participation, "The dirty little secret of employee engagement surveys is that they're largely junk science -- placing the marketing objective of telling and selling a good story above the practical and ethical objective of telling the truth." Statistical methods are misused, corrupting survey results, while providing an air of scientific legitimacy.

Just how bad is it? The statistical methods used to identify important findings in engagement surveys, such as statistical significance tests and regression analysis, are the same methods used in the 1994 best seller The Bell Curve to prove that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites.

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