Pin It

By Melissa Campeau

When Douglas Conant took on the role of CEO at Campbell Soup Co. in 2001, the company was failing on virtually all fronts. They’d lost half their market value in just one year and takeover rumours were flying.

Internally, employees were deeply unhappy; a Gallop survey found 62 per cent considered themselves not actively engaged in their jobs and 12 per cent said there were fully disengaged. No Fortune 500 company had ever scored worse.

But in just a handful of years, Conant worked something of a miracle. By 2008, a full 68 per cent of employees said they were actively engaged in their work and only three per cent claimed to be actively disengaged. That’s a ratio of 23 to 1. Gallop considers a ratio of 12 to 1 to be world-class. Earnings grew, too, by four per cent each year during that timeframe and return on the company’s stock rose 30 per cent.

Of all the strategies Conant employed to turn things around, he credits increasing his employees’ engagement as most important. In an interview with Forbes magazine, the CEO said, “To win in the marketplace, we believe you must first win in the workplace. I’m obsessed with keeping employee engagement front and center and keeping up energy around it.”

Faith in engagement and its power to transform a company has grown quickly among the ranks of senior managers and CEOs. In fact, a 2014 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report found 78 per cent of business leaders rate retention and engagement as urgent or important.

But to chart a course toward improvement, you first need to know the lay of the land. This is where an engagement survey comes in.

Starting point

To gather data from employees, most organizations begin by hiring an external company.

“That’s not necessarily because you need them to administer it, but because you want the confidentiality and the perception of confidentiality,” said Rick Webb, human resources director at Sault College, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. “Also you want the benchmark against other organizations’ results because everything is relative. If the same questions have been asked of 10,000 employees across North America and your company is in the 10th percentile, then you’ll know you have a lot of work to do.”

Conversely, if scores seem low but other organizations also score low on that topic, it can prevent you from flagging an issue unnecessarily.

“For example, if your scores on pay are low, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pay everyone more,” said Robert Gray, president of Insightlink Communications in Palm Springs, Calif. “It means you’re right in line and that’s just the way people across the board feel about pay.”


Typically, an engagement survey will include questions grouped within particular categories. Gray’s firm, for example, explores four areas: culture, commitment, communication and compensation.

“A survey should be objective and shouldn’t lead you to a particular answer,” said Gray. “It should also be constructive, where you don’t only hear the highs and the lows.”

Surveys should also have enough breakdown included to properly decipher results.

“When you’re looking at surveys and deciding which to use, see if the survey breaks things down far enough to look at individual parts of the organization, because someone could be completely satisfied with their supervisor and disengaged with the employer generally,” said Webb. “You also want to have some segmentation between the various layers of the organization. That way, once you get all the aggregate data, you can paint a picture of your strengths and weaknesses.”


Whatever questions you do ask, it’s critical to ask them of the entire staff.

“What you want to do is hear form everyone – ideally 80 to 85 per cent participation,” said Gray. “Make sure data collection methods fit with the nature of the workforce.” If not all staff members have web access, for example, then a survey that’s only available online will leave many out. You’re not only missing out on valuable data, you risk alienating an entire group within the business.

Prepare staff

Well in advance of the survey, staff should have a clear sense of what’s coming, why and what the organization will do afterward.

“One of the biggest missteps I see when organizations conduct engagement surveys is they don’t state what their guiding principles are from the outset,” said Gray. “Why are you doing it? What are you going to do with the results? How are you going to put those plans into action?”

You’re asking staff to invest a fair amount of time giving candid and honest feedback. A little explanation can go a long way to establishing trust.

Find a focus

When the results come in, the numbers will paint a portrait of how many staffers are engaged, disengaged and actively disengaged. You’ll also get a sense of what areas in particular have the best and worst engagement, and where to target your improvement efforts.

“I think today one of the things any organization struggles with is resources – not just money but also time – so when you want to improve your workplace you want to target your dollars,” said Webb. “A lot of times, we get to the management table and decisions are based on who has the most compelling story or argument instead of what data tells us about where to apply our resources.” Numbers can paint a clear picture of what needs to be done. “Without an engagement survey, it’s like throwing darts in the dark.”

In many cases, data will reveal several potential areas of focus – more than an organization can reasonably do at one time.

“The most common mistake, in my experience, has been to take on too many action items at once,” said Norm Sabapathy, executive vice president, People, at the Cadillac Fairview Corporation in Toronto. “Typical surveys can have as many as 100 questions. Most companies cut the data multiple ways; they filter by department, by level, by region. Looking at all those persepctives can really get your head spinning.”

When faced with all that information, it can be easy to imagine change on a grand scale, with every single manager developing individual action items for their teams, plus divisional projects and company-wide initiatives.

“Any time I’ve seen that happen, it doesn’t work effectively,” said Sabapathy. “It belies the definition of focus to pick that many things to work on.” Instead, Sabapathy recommends zeroing in on the initiatives that need the most attention or will provide the best rewards for the organization. “What we do now at Cadillac Fairview is focus on a limited number of key engagement drivers where we can improve based on the survey feedback, and make sure those things are executed well.”

Implement change

Once you’ve charted a course, you can set your plans in motion.

“In our most recent survey, two of our top issues were recognition and career opportunities,” said Sabapathy. As part of the response, the company implemented a new online peer-based recognition program. “From the year we put it in to the following year, we had a 100 per cent increase in recognition,” he said. “It’s easy, reinforces our values, and people love it.”

As part of the plan to address the issue of career opportunities, the company measured how often they were promoting and transferring people internally.

“The act of measuring it drove a different kind of behaviour,” said Sabapathy. In just two years, the company recorded a 73 per cent increase in the amount of internal moves and promotions.

Share the results

Once you’ve analyzed the data and have a plan of action, let employees know about both the results and the plans. The worst thing an organization can do when it comes to surveys is to conduct one, then never mention it again.

“When you have the opportunity to get candid feedback, it’s a gift,” said Sabapathy. “When you don’t respect it as a gift and do nothing with it, you’re likely to never get it again, or you’re going to get a very whitewashed answer because people don’t believe or care as much.”

What’s more, staff members are likely to assume the results were exceptionally bad.

“When you don’t communicate, people fill the vacuum, usually with the worst-case scenario,” said Webb. “It’s just human nature.”

On the other hand, depositing a binder full of survey results on every staff member’s desk isn’t constructive, either.

“We recommend giving staff highlights of the results, in conjunction with clear direction about what’s going to be done to improve the work environment,” said Gray. “That’s what they want to know.”

Providing highlights also keeps respondents aware that their voices were heard, regardless of what the action items end up being.

“People have a high propensity to take out of surveys what’s most meaningful to them,” said Sabapathy. “They’ll wonder why you didn’t work on a solution around tuition reimbursement or paternity leave. Everybody has their own interests.”

Measure again

Once you’ve gone through a survey and launched new programs to address your challenges, the next step is to survey again to see if you’ve moved the needle. Timing is key, though.

“It’s important to complete your action plan and give employees time to experience the change before measuring again,” said Gray. “If there’s a new performance review system, for example, to address concerns about job definitions, wait until everyone has had one of the reviews.”

Should organizations follow a specific timeline? It depends on what works for them.

“In my opinion, every two years is a good frequency for engagement surveys,” said Web. “In between, at the one-year mark you could do a mini survey with just five or 10 questions, or just communicate with staff about what you’ve done so far.”

Final words

“When you look through all the things you can measure, an engagement index is proving to be one of the key measurements,” said Sabapathy. “I think the true test of value is when it becomes less of an HR initiative and more of an organizational initiative.”

At Cadillac Fairview, engagement scores are an integral part of the company’s five-year strategic plan.

“In addition to profit targets and operating targets and all the traditional business measures, we have an engagement index as one of our key enterprise measures for the business.

“Once HR gets their metrics to that level, that’s when you know you’re having a true business impact,” said Sabapathy. “With the right data, HR can pull together a good picture of how talent is performing. Understanding that, and what to do about it, will directly impact your results and drive organizational performance.”

Pin It