Selecting Benchmark Data for Valid Employee Engagement Measurement

Selecting benchmark data to measure Employee Engagement surveyoutcomes can stir up a lot of issues in more ways than you might imagine. People get twisted in a knot about measurement comparatives: rancor and concern is most common among senior leadership. Who are they being compared to? Are these the right comparisons to be looking at?

Benchmarking provides context – a frame of reference.  Compensation, for instance, tends to rate low, really low, across the organizational board. Without a benchmark you might say, “ok, we have to do something about compensation.”  But when you compare your score to those of other organizations, you’ll see everybody’s performing poorly in compensation. It’s when you differ from the average, higher or lower, that true issues come into focus.

To be clear, benchmarks aren’t a panacea. In fact, when a lot of organizations get into measurement comparisons, the underbelly of benchmarking isn’t readily understood.

Pitfalls When Selecting Benchmark Data

Pitfall #1: The potential to completely shift decision making and focus

Let’s say overall senior leadership dimensions are 63% favorable, 24% neutral and 13% unfavorable (representing 37% room for improvement). Leaders see these numbers and say, ok, we can do better, this might be an area we want to tackle. Then they see benchmarks from other organizations and learn their 63% score is higher than most. There’s a decision-making shift to, oh, we feel good about ourselves, there’s no need to take action after all. It’s time to wave a red flag warning.

Pitfall #2 Sensitivities around internal benchmarks

Yes, departmental comparisons in context of the organization generally and other departments specifically, can be insightful.  Yes, you want to be transparent. You want to show independent department results, but it’s a question of how. There’s a nefarious psychological impact on how people receive information in an open forum. Sensitivity is key. Consider this boardroom scenario:

The VP of Department Four sees they have favorable percentages overall, and thinks, I’m doing fine. Engagement is not my problem. I’m going to shift my attention to other things.  Meanwhile, sitting next to them is the VP of Department Two who is sinking in their seat because of percentages much lower than the majority.  They’re thinking, there’s something wrong with the results, feel embarrassed and defensive in front of their peers, and challenge findings.

Neither party, positive or negative, responds with a constructive approach to engagement. The upshot of presenting details one-on-one is positive receptivity.  Choose how to share benchmarks, wisely.

Pitfall #3: The real value of external benchmarks

No two organizations share the exact same conditions.  You need to ask five questions when looking into what external benchmarks are relevant to your organization and selecting benchmark data:

  1. What’s available from my survey employee engagement survey providers?

All vendors collect different data. Some have a strong North American presence. Others are more global in nature. There are those offering niche sector expertise while others provide a broader scope.  What’s the composition of the data being offered for comparable purposes? How many organizations are involved? How old is the data? What is the longest an organization’s results are included in the data– one year? Five? More?

  1. Which characteristic/s best suit my organization?
    1. Size
    2. Industry/Sector
    3. Region
    4. Other

What TalentMap has found is that it doesn’t really matter what widgets or services are being produced, whether you’re in advanced manufacturing, aerospace or aquaculture, or whether you’re located in the epicenter of a large city or the industrial park of a small town.  What matters most is size. Employee Engagement is, after all, a function of how people interrelate with each other. Smaller, entrepreneurial organizations tend to facilitate that human collaboration differently than monolithic corporations, or health care and public sector environments where employee interaction follows rigorous rules and regulations.  Like-sized is akin to like-minded.

  1. Where does my talent come from? And
  2. Where does my talent go to when they leave?

These two questions are fundamentally important, especially as talent competition heats up in the foreseeable future. Who is doing a better job than you are?  This is where sector-specific information may be relevant – the transient legal field where lawyers hop from firm to firm, a case in point.

  1. If we customize our survey will we be able to tap into existing comparable benchmarks?

You can expect similarities even though there may be wording differences. But statements must express the same concept, otherwise, benchmark comparatives fall short of being useful.

Let’s look at this example:

  • “I can see a clear link between my work and my organization’s long-term objective
  • I understand how my work directly contributes to the overall success of my organization.”

Although not exact, the similarity is close enough – both are measuring a fundamental level of contribution to an organization’s success.

Conversely these two examples are not measuring the same view:

  • My immediate supervisor gives me constructive feedback on the work I do.”
  • “My manager provides regular feedback about my work.”

The first asks about constructive feedback – or quality.

The second asks about regular feedback – or frequency.

Are you comparing apples to apples? Or peaches to avocados?

To ensure you are selecting benchmark data that is right for your organization, remember the basics:

  • Benchmarks are very useful, but can also be very misleading
    • A benchmark should NEVER be
      • An excuse for inaction
      • Used to rationalize mediocrity (just because everyone else is average, doesn’t mean you should be too)
      • The reason bad questions are retained and repeated survey after survey.
  • A reliable benchmark
    • Is robust (as many organizations as possible, which reduces variance)
    • Time-based (more recent the better)
    • Uses a diverse external benchmark that represents your rough size and your talent universe
    • Ideally, compares your own previous-period Employee Engagement survey ratings (the best benchmark of them all).

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