Weekly Wrap: Engagement Trends Improving, But Still Below 2008 Level

Illustration by istockphoto.com.

Employee engagement is still one of those highly sought yet greatly misunderstood workplace metrics.

I’m reminded of this every time I dig into another engagement survey, and the one that I found myself poking around in this week was the 2013 Employee Engagement Trends Report from Quantum Workplace, a company that says it “delivers smart tools for achieving and recognizing workplace awesomeness.”

It’s hard for me to get a fix on the notion of “workplace awesomeness” — a bit of over-the top marketing hype, don’t you think? — but the data from the 2013 Employee Engagement Trends Report was pretty interesting when you dig down into it, because it focuses in large part on the level of engagement among the nearly 5,000 organizations that participated in Best Places to Work last year.

Engagement still below pre-recession levels

Here’s the key finding from the research: Of the employees participating in Best Places to Work, nearly 68 percent percent ranked as engaged in 2012, compared to only 37 percent of employees surveyed from organizations not participating in Best Places to Work.

More importantly, even though engagement scores at those Best Places to Work participating companies continue to slowly improve, the scores are still down from where they were before was before the recession kicked in (late 2008/early 2009).

As the survey report notes:

Engagement continues to climb back to the level found prior to the late-2008 recession. In 2007, 70.6 percent of employees participating in Best Places to Work ranked as engaged. Engagement among these organizations hit its lowest point in 2010 with only 66.7 percent of employees ranked as engaged. However, since then engagement has slowly been making a comeback. From 2011 to 2012, engagement increased by .6 percent.”

The problem with focusing on companies participating in the Best Places to Work competition is that organizations that feel strongly enough about the quality of their workplace to enter something like that are probably also places that focus on the very issues that make for a highly engaged workforce.

The reality about engagement scores

And, just that one simple fact may skew the results of the survey since it seems to be measuring engagement at companies that are already pretty engaged to begin with.

The 2013 Employee Engagement Trends Report zeroes in on that contradiction and addresses it like this:

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This year’s analysis included the two data sets — those participating in Best Places to Work and those not — in order to give a more in-depth view of engagement nationwide. According to the report, “In reality, the national average of engaged employees is likely somewhere between the Best Places to Work participants, who already know they excel at corporate culture, and the smaller sample of non-participating organizations, who recognize the need to improve and monitor corporate culture.”

So, it’s clear that engagement overall at American companies is not as high as the 68 percent level that the Quantum Workplace survey found at Best Places to Work participating companies, nor is it as low as 37 percent level registered at other businesses and organizations.

It’s probably closer to the 52.5 percent that you get if you average the two. And, that seems just about right for the slowly improving but still pretty dreary state of employee engagement throughout the U.S. workforce.

Other survey highlights

You should take a closer look at the report if you are interested in digging into the research a little deeper (and you can get a free copy here). There are also other highlights worth discussing:

  • Engagement still remains lower than the level found prior to the late-2008 recession.
  • Employees in higher levels within organizations are more engaged than those in lower levels (no surprise here).
  • Organizations reporting increased profits had a higher level of engaged employees than those with declining profits (that’s not a shock, either).
  • Denver and Charlotte were the only cities to show consistent and significant increases in engagement since 2009.
  • Despite being two of the most engaged industries, the construction and accommodation/food services industries experienced decreases in engagement between 2011 and 2012.
  • Trust in senior leaders has the greatest impact on organizations’ overall level of engagement; however, only one in five organizations excel in this area.
  • Perception of employee recognition varies drastically between engaged and disengaged employees, as well as between executives and hourly employees.

Developed in 2003, the Employee Engagement Trends Report contains 37 standard items that fall into 10 areas of engagement. These 37 items were tested among 75 pilot items on 1 million employees. The 37 items making up the 2013 survey account for 99 percent of the variation in overall engagement found in the test group. Quantum Workplace validates the survey annually through Best Places to Work, gathering responses annually from nearly 5,000 organizations.

Why women are better leaders

Of course, there’s a lot more than the latest engagement survey in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Why women make better leaders than men. Here’s another intriguing story as reported by the Los Angeles Times: “

    Women make better corporate leaders than men because they are more likely to make fair decisions when competing interests are at stake, … (according to) a new study published this week in the International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics (and) based on a survey of 600 board directors. Women leaders are more likely than men to consider competing interests and take a cooperative approach when making decisions, according to the study, conducted by researchers at A.T. Still University in Arizona and McMaster University in Canada.”

  • The secret to success at Trader Joe’s. If you have ever shopped at Trader Joe’s, you know it is a pretty great specialty market, and The Atlantic recently dug into the secret of Trader Joe’s success. “Many employers believe that one of the best ways to raise their profit margin is to cut labor costs. But companies like QuikTrip, the grocery-store chain Trader Joe’s, and Costco Wholesale are proving that the decision to offer low wages is a choice, not an economic necessity. All three are low-cost retailers, a sector that is traditionally known for relying on part-time, low-paid employees. Yet these companies have all found that the act of valuing workers can pay off in the form of increased sales and productivity.”
  • Paying employees to live near the office. We all know that shorter commutes are better for workers, but Fast Company reports on a business that is actually doing something to encourage workers to live closer to the office. “Ralph and Georges Harik, the brothers who run the Palo Alto-based messaging company Imo … (recently) began offering a $500 monthly housing stipend to employees who chose to live within five miles of Imo’s office. Today, of Imo’s roughly 20 employees, all but one or two have taken up the Hariks on their offer. “We wanted to help people get to a place that makes them happy, and us happy.”
  • Trust in the workplace survey. The good people over at ELI in Atlanta (and you have read some interesting posts here at TLNT from ELI’s Steve Paskoff) are conducting a survey of HR professionals about trust in the workplace. The results will be published in a white paper and highlighted here at TLNT after April 19, so please click here and take a few minutes to give your feedback on this important and worthwhile topic.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


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