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Our thoughts on employee survey benchmarking

6 Dec 2017 - Blog

Our thoughts on employee survey benchmarking 


One question that prospective clients often ask us when discussing employee surveys is ‘who do you work with in our sector?’

This query is often motivated by two questions:

  • Do we understand the industry?
  • Do we have sector benchmarks for comparison?

Having experience of the sector of course really helps when it comes to questionnaire design, understanding the broader context and issues that affect colleagues. But who you compare your survey results to, and why, requires more consideration.


The war for talent


A common driver for sector benchmarks is the link between engagement and recruitment and retention of talent. Organisations are often keen to understand how likely they are to attract talented employees from or lose them to competitors. It is great PR to show strong employee engagement, and bad PR to show poor engagement, as our experiences with Glassdoor attest. Of course it’s not just engagement that make up the employer brand – values, product, CSR, the ‘coolness factor’ etc. all have their part to play.

Another valid reason for wanting to score higher than same-sector competitors include demonstrating a resilient and stable workforce to shareholders. Organisations (particularly in financial services) use engagement scores as part of their strategic planning and reporting. We’ve also seen employee engagement details requested of suppliers during due diligence.

Thirdly, bragging rights: high performing organisations want to know and show that they are market leaders in a variety of ways!


When sector benchmarks are misleading


There are potential dangers though when using a sector-specific benchmark.

There is no research defined sample size that constitutes a robust number for sector benchmarking. Fifty would be great, three would not, but what is enough?

Furthermore, unless using an off-the-shelf question set, all of the organisations would need to use the same questions to be comparable. With bespoke questionnaires, the sample size could vary dramatically by question.

Also, organisations that on paper are similar may not be good comparators, due to differences in structure, size, culture, operating principles, or maturity of engagement programmes.

Finally, sector-specific comparisons are also more likely to give rise to a false yardstick, i.e. an excuse for poor scores because ‘we’re better than the competition’ or an under appreciation of strengths due to very strong comparators.


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?


We do like the context that benchmarks provide, and there is a range of different comparators that you can use to achieve different goals.


For organisations who have established strong employee engagement, and want the stretch, a cross-sector ‘upper quartile’ benchmark is useful, and very popular with many of our clients. A broad brush, cross-industry ‘general’ benchmark comparison might not have the perceived cachet of a sector-specific benchmark, but can provide a more accurate, robust view of what employees want from their employers, often from hundreds of thousands, if not millions of data points.

Additionally, we should focus on internal benchmarks, both historic and division/department comparisons. The highest performing organisations often are often interested in internal comparisons first, and no organisation after all can find a better benchmark than itself.

A more subjective (and perhaps more valid) assessment is to look at scores around priority issues and consider ‘X% of our employees agree with question Y, is that good enough or not for the kind of organisation we want to be?’


“Don’t compare yourself to others, you have no idea what their journey is all about.” Dawn Abraham


There is a strong case to be made for benchmarking in helping to understand the organisation’s relative employee engagement strengths and weaknesses, but given the caveats above, a reliance on sector benchmarking shouldn’t be over emphasised.


“This highest performing organisations often are often interested in internal comparisons first, and no organisation can find a better benchmark than itself.” Dr George Margrove


Thanks to Dr. George Margrove for this piece.


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