‘If it can’t be measured it can’t be managed’ is a catchcry of business, but over-measuring staff performance can provide some negatives if you are not careful. Jane Cherrington reports.
American Express pours tens of millions of dollars every year into its global philanthropic trust and directly into various charities. But when Michelle Thomson’s human resources team in Australia was surveyed two years ago, they identified good citizenship as an area in which they would like to make a bigger impact.
Thomson, Vice President HR at American Express, was surprised by the team’s response.
We’re human resources; that’s what we do. We’ve got people in the community painting houses, doing gardening, and we support The Smith Family, let alone what we do globally.
It seemed that one of the issues was communication not everyone in her team was aware of the company’s community activities or the support given to the company charity so Thomson resolved to provide an update every week.
When the results of the following survey hit Thomson’s desk last November she was taken aback when the philanthropic scores had not improved.
Asking her staff to get together to discuss the issue, Thomson was relieved to find a solution that both she and the team were happy with.
It turned out that while the team members appreciated the work being done by the company globally and locally in Australia , they wanted to have their own project.
So now we all make a contribution from our own pockets to sponsor a World Vision child from Kenya, says Thomson. The team also spent time fundraising for victims of the Boxing Day Tsunami, and two of her team members work on The Smith Family’s guest reader program.
Having made an effort to listen to her staff and make changes, Thomson is confident that the results of this year’s survey will show an improvement.
On the other hand, improved survey results are not always a good thing, according to Matt Balogh, Managing Director of McNair Ingenuity Research. Our research has shown that while the numbers may appear to be going up, employee engagement may well be going down, he says.
It is wise to doubt results in an employee engagement survey that steadily improve over time, says Balogh. We’ve found that employees learn to give a better score each time because that’s good for their manager. And what’s good for their manager is good for them. It’s as simple as that.
Departments that score well are rewarded. The manager is recognised as being a great manager and great managers win resources. Managers who have poor scores or whose scores go backwards don’t get the resources because they’re not seen as being a great manager.
Balogh had the opportunity to examine how employees respond to engagement surveys when McNair Ingenuity was commissioned by the Finance Sector Union (FSU) to effectively test the results of Commonwealth Bank research. The bank uses the Gallup Organisation to survey its employees and reports on the results in its information to shareholders.
The Gallup results show a positive, upward trend in employee engagement, says Sharron Caddie, the union’s National Assistant Secretary. (The Gallup Organisation declined to be interviewed for this story.)
But the union was receiving feedback from members that they were unhappy. The bank is undergoing a significant three-year transformation project where they’re overturning the way everything is done, and 3700 people, or 10 per cent of the workforce, will lose their jobs over the three-year period, says Caddie.
During negotiations over enterprise agreements last year, the bank’s unshakeable position was that staff were engaged, morale was high, and there were no staffing problems across the organisation.
We just couldn’t break through that impasse, so we thought it would be worthwhile engaging a reputable organisation to undertake research that would tell us one way or the other, she says.
McNair Ingenuity surveyed almost 1000 Commonwealth Bank employees, all of them union members, using phone interviews and focus groups.
Balogh says during the focus groups it became apparent that many staff felt disenfranchised by the bank’s cultural change program.
Employees felt less trusted, [less] valued, and [less] respected, he says, although the bank’s own research found exactly the opposite.
Nonetheless, the McNair Ingenuity research found the bank scored well when it came to employee satisfaction overall, in a similar finding to the Gallup survey.
The questions where we really get differences are about their own manager and whether they are in touch with the team, in touch with customers and things like that, says Balogh.
Also, nearly half of those surveyed felt that it was in their own best interests (or their manager’s) to answer the Bank’s employee engagement survey more positively.
In one case we’re aware that the size of the bonus available for distribution in a particular business unit would depend on the level of participation in the Gallup survey and how positively that work unit scored, says Caddie.
Members have told the union that the design of the Gallup survey makes them feel they have to respond as if they’re talking about their own line manager.
So they really want to say something about the organisation but if they respond as though they’re talking negatively about the organisation, the only person that impacts is the line manager, she says.
Again, they respond more positively because they know that it’s their line manager who will have to take responsibility for running the workshops and putting in place the action plan that are all about ensuring they get a better score next time, Caddie says.
Asked to comment about the McNair Ingenuity research, a Commonwealth Bank spokesman emailed a prepared statement. The Commonwealth Bank has been using Gallup, an internationally recognised research company, to conduct its annual employee feedback survey for several years. The survey is a valuable source of feedback from our staff and is important in order to identify areas where we can, within our teams, improve the performance of the business and excel in customer service. The claims raised by the FSU over the process are not valid.
Measure in moderation
Balogh says part of the problem with employee surveys is that they may add up to too much measurement in an organisation. In recent years there’s been a move to introduce performance and productivity measures to every corner of the business. Some would even argue that if it can’t be measured, it ‘ain’t worth doing’, he says.
Results from the focus groups of Commonwealth Bank staff found that the measurement of every aspect of employees’ work and behaviour was a disincentive to good performance, says Balogh.
Call centres are a good example of workplaces where measurements abound. Staff must achieve a certain number of calls per hour and each call should last a certain time.
So as a call nears the maximum time, the person handling the call is going to try and get rid of the customer, says Balogh, Because when they go over the time limit, it’s going to light up on their supervisor’s screen and they’ll listen in to try and find out what’s going wrong. That’s a bad thing.
That’s a numbers game that is not productive for the organisation. Call centre staff will transfer calls, not because they can’t help the customer, but because it’s going to muck up their numbers.
It’s a perfect example of overmeasurement and mismeasurement.
Another is the use of ‘mystery shoppers’, common in retail organisations and other shopfront businesses. Poorly trained mystery shoppers can think that their job is to entrap the employee into making mistakes, says Balogh.
The problem is that when too many measurements are used in an organisation, there is a greater chance the results will be fudged.
Employees are asked to measure so many aspects of their work: how many sales, how many referrals, how many contacts, how many calls per hour… says Balogh.
Some employees have so many measurements to record it would take them an hour or two a week.
Measurement in moderation is the answer, says Balogh.
Use measurement that’s realistic and focused on bottom line. And it should include processes for dealing with the results constructively.
At American Express, its annual employee engagement survey is a key driver for the business, says Michelle Thomson.
The reason we care is that our employees are American Express; we live and die by what our employees deliver. It’s really important for us that we have engaged employees because the evidence is that an engaged employee will deliver more value to your customer which, will then enable the business to have greater investment to grow the business, which keeps the shareholders happy, she says.
What the survey is doing is measuring how we live up to our values from each employee’s viewpoint; and that’s really important. Are we delivering on our promise to them?
Thomson is confident that the survey results are accurate and valuable.
We’re very transparent and this stuff is all up on our intranet for anyone to see. You can’t make someone say something’s good if it’s not. It’s just not what our employees are. One of our values is that we will have integrity in everything we do. We don’t tell lies; if we make a mistake we admit it, fix it, and move on. We don’t rule, manage, or lead through fear or retribution.
Happy, engaged employees became ambassadors for the organisation, says Thomson.
It’s one of the first questions you’re asked at a social event: ‘What do you do?’. We really want our employees to be proud of the company and be proud to say they work for us, she says.