Public/Private Partnership with the University of Louisville Identifies 4 Indicators of Employee Engagement

Survey design is often overlooked when employers are seeking to collect data from employees, but it can make or break the success of an employer listening strategy.  If the survey design is under-researched, the data collected can–at best–be incomplete or–at worst–be inaccurate. While well-researched measures and assessments can help diagnose particular issues, they rarely help human resource professionals create a path for change.

Recently, HSD Metrics worked with a team of University of Louisville researchers to re-create a survey design model that has become the foundation for all of our measures of engagement (ExitRight®, SurveyRight®, StartOffRight®, StayRight®, 360Right®). Our goal was to find a model that helps employers dissect the complexity and dynamic nature of employee engagement. We started with an accepted and well-researched theoretical foundation based on Abraham Maslow’s work in the 1940s. Maslow initially believed that individuals must satisfy lower-level deficit or physical needs before progressing to meet higher-level growth needs. Similarly, we believe that employers need to satisfy the basic needs employees expect (pay, benefits, resources) before employees become “engaged” (I belong, I see myself working here for a long time). For example, if there are 15 computers and 20 developers (a lack of resources), there will certainly be five developers questioning whether this organization is a good fit.

Using these principles, we provided the research team 10 years of data with a representative data set of over 13,000 respondents.  Using an exploratory factor analysis method, we determined that there are varying levels of employee engagement.  These levels have become the cornerstone of our data because they help human resource professionals move from data collection to action.

Level 1 factors are the physical, tangible, measurable aspects of work life. Do I get paid enough? Do I get paid on time?  Do I have the resources I need to do my job? Do I feel safe at work? Do I have a friend at work?  Are the policies palatable? Do I have good benefits?  Employee perception always impacts data collection (e.g., the employer may be paying above market but employees still perceive low pay), but for the most part Level 1 factors can be seen, measured and proven (we have had 14 safety violations and two accidents so employees don’t feel safe).  Level 2 factors are meaning-based and rely much more on employee perceptions.  Four indicators emerged that most impact employee perception of the work experience: Belonging and Influence (are the people I work with my kind of people and do they accept me?), Line of Sight (do I see myself progressing in this organization?), Leadership Acumen (can the leaders lead and do I believe in them?), and Organizational Integrity (do I want to align my persona brand to this organization’s brand?).

Taken together, Level 1 and Level 2 factors help change agents build an accurate narrative of the employee experience so they can build a comprehensive, precise change plan for the future. For example, Pay is a constant when analyzing results from employee engagement surveys, but Pay is rarely the key to long-term improvements to the employee experience.  Often, Level 1 factors such as Pay, Training and Advancement behave the same way and determine how employees’ perceive the company’s investment in them. If associates also respond negatively to a particular Level 2 question, employers can better understand how the Level 1 factors are impacting outcomes such as turnover and employee tenure (and why). Moreover, Level 1 factors are typically easier to identify, can be changed quickly but do not tend to lead to lasting change.  If an organization gives everyone a 10% raise, the employer may see immediate improvements in employee engagement, but the impact may not endure. Level 2 factors are more difficult to change, but often endure over time.  Employers focused on improving Supervisor Effectiveness will see a longer ROI but will also experience a more lasting, foundational impact. For example, when team members trust supervisors, messages from senior management become easier to disseminate even when they include news about Level 1 factors (e.g., changes in benefits)

Other examples include:

  • Employees in a service organization reported high levels of Belonging and Influence throughout COVID because of the programs the employer rolled out. The company doubled down on these programs post-COVID.  Result: Turnover is low and engagement scores have improved In spite of employees reporting that they believe they receive a below average compensation based on the market
  • A transportation company that rolled out a generous compensation program experienced increased turnover about two years after the change because employees perceived a decrease in Advancement opportunities. The decrease in turnover coincided with a decrease in positive scores for Belonging and Influence.
  • A large manufacturing company built a successful DEI and gender equity programs based on the Level 2 indicators Line of Sight and Leadership Acumen and Level1 factors Friends at work and Advancement.
  • Many of the organizations HSD worked with through COVID quickly recognized that engagement efforts will not succeed if employees do not feel safe at work. As Maslow found many years ago, if employers cannot fulfill Level 1 needs (safety, wages, a welcoming environment), it is probable that investments in improving the overall work experience will fall short.