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3 keys to employee engagement measurement

Far too many organizations and their HR departments conduct employee engagement measurement in a way that does more harm than good. Here's how to get it right.

Measuring employee engagement is a tricky endeavor. Yet, HR can't understand if engagement is improving without solid measurement techniques.

Here are three tips on how HR teams can conduct employee engagement measurement in a way that actually helps boost retention and meet other business goals.

1. Define 'engagement'

"Each organization has their own priorities, their own requirements and their own needs," said Edward Sanchez, director of communications and engagement at Selerix, a benefits software provider in McKinney, Texas. "So the way that a particular organization is going to define employee engagement and then measure it is going to be different from company A to company B."

The fact that multiple definitions are applied to employee engagement measurement puts pressure on companies to define it clearly as it applies to their workforce, and then be just as clear about how they'll gather and interpret their data, said Mark Vickers, HR.com's chief research analyst.

"You have to have an idea of what your standard is," Vickers said.

"The problem is that when you go to measure -- which is often through some kind of survey device -- most organizations don't stop to check in and say, 'What is it we exactly mean when we say engagement?'" said Jason Lauritsen, an author and business consultant near Omaha, Neb.

Organizations must understand in concrete terms if they're using a definition that exists or whether they need to create their own.

However organizations define employee engagement and related terms, they need to understand why they want to do employee engagement measurement in the first place, said Jeffrey Saltzman, CEO of OrgVitality, a Pleasantville, N.Y., consulting firm that works with companies to improve their effectiveness. For example, are executives concerned about how engagement affects retention, or are they more concerned with customer service?

"People always come to me and ask, 'Is your instrument valid?'" Saltzman said. "That's sort of a meaningless question because it has to be valid for a specific use case."

He likens employee engagement measurement to an X-ray: It's a valid way to confirm a broken bone, for example, but it won't help diagnose a head cold.

"It can be valid, but what are you trying to validate it for?" Saltzman said. "What are you trying to predict for? What's the strategy that you're trying to implement or trying to achieve as an organization?"

2. Decide on tools and frequency

There are almost as many approaches to employee engagement measurement as there are definitions of engagement.

While some HR technology companies offer tools to measure engagement in nuanced ways, many are simply variations on the tried-and-true survey.

"A well-designed, effectively executed employee survey is still probably the most effective tool we have," Lauritsen said. "Regardless of what the measurement is, or what the definition is, what we're trying to measure is essentially the gap between an employee's experience at work and their expectations."

Many experts believe a single, annual employee survey isn't enough.

"Measure more than once," said Reb Rebele, a senior research fellow at Wharton People Analytics, an organization within the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, in an email. "Most things that might be classified as employee engagement tend to ebb and flow -- and sometimes change substantially -- over time."

Some of the most useful things you can learn from employee engagement measurement are only uncovered when you track engagement over time and explore potential causes of ups and downs.

"A lot of organizations are moving to more frequent measures of engagement and experience," said Bradley Wilson, global head of research and insights at Perceptyx, a Temecula, Calif., company that provides employee survey and analytics technology to businesses.

At the same time, increasing the number of surveys doesn't, by itself, provide employers with better information, Wilson said.

"The emphasis really should be on what are the things that are influencing engagement and addressing the elements of the culture and the environment that actually make a difference in terms of engagement," he said. "If you're measuring it badly, measuring it more frequently isn't going to help."

3. Decide to act on data

While most employee engagement measuring tools can spotlight challenges, they can't help diagnose them, Lauritsen said. An employer might learn productivity is down in a certain department, but it won't learn why. To do that, HR or management must have a strategy to act on the data.

"We're going to have to make sure that managers or somebody has a process to go see what's happening or to engage in conversations that actually get some qualitative data from folks about what's happening and what we need to do to head it off," Lauritsen said.

In addition, the workforce's active participation in employee engagement measurement can impact engagement itself, Wilson said. Surveys and similar mechanisms mean that an employee can be an active participant in the process. A company that stops asking employees their opinion risks sending a message that it's more concerned with data than in what people think.

"I think that probably the better approach is to integrate both types of data, do it in a way that's still respectful of the individual and enables them to have some involvement in the process and the outcomes," Wilson said.

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