Employee engagement surveys: useless or very useless?

Popular in the late 1990s, a new study says they’re a waste of money

by Emily Senger

Employee engagement surveys became popular in the late ’90s after the Harvard Business Review published research showing a link between employee satisfaction at Sears stores and revenue growth. Today, U.S. firms spend about $720 million trying to improve employee engagement.

Unfortunately, it’s a waste of money, says a new paper in the Journal for Quality and Participation. “The dirty little secret of employee engagement surveys is that they’re largely junk science,” writes Robert Gerst, a partner at Calgary-based Converge Consulting.

The problem, says Gerst, is the attempt to use “statistical significance” to draw meaningful conclusions or patterns from broad survey data. “Just because you can detect a difference between two groups has nothing to do, at all, with whether that difference is in any way important,” he says. The surveys may even mislead managers and find problems where none exists.

Employee feedback is useful if done right. Gerst recommends qualitative research—speaking with actual employees—before developing targeted survey questions. As for surveys widely used now, Gerst writes: “Boiling employee engagement down to a single score means you don’t understand employee engagement.”




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Employee engagement surveys: useless or very useless?

  1. Employee engagement surveys are simply management tools that can be a very effective if used correctly. They can be a good catalyst to open up a two way dialogue between management and staff on topics seldom talked about in the workplace. The usefulness of a employee survey like any management tool relies in the effectiveness of the management team not in the tool itself.

    • please, have you actually read the Gallup q12 questions? the questions are superfluous at best, i have heard the same argument about it being a tool. the tools i use have a very specific use when employed, this survey is pure nonsense, my company has been doing this survey for 8 years with no change in the results, i assume your reasoning is that management is using the results correctly? its snake oil plain and simple

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