Survey says...Are you measuring engagement, or only employee satisfaction?


Employee surveys. Can’t live with ’em, can’t…well, you know. Most “employers of choice” do some form of employee “satisfaction” survey. The question is: Is it worthwhile, and if so, why?

In the current economic climate, one might be tempted to ask: “Why bother?” With unemployment at record high numbers, one might assume that employers have employees “over a barrel,” that they (the employees) don’t have many other options, so it’s not necessary to go out of our way to give them what they want.

This argument fails on (at least) two levels. Even overlooking the crass opportunism of such an argument, theatre operators need to recognize that while overall national unemployment rates climb to record levels, the current jobless rate for working-age teenagers (our key employment demographic) remains little changed over the last several years, at 21.6 percent.

The other way in which the “over a barrel” thesis might fail would be if we were only measuring satisfaction. But most companies that do this “right” aren’t measuring mere satisfaction; they’re measuring engagement. What’s the difference? In a nutshell, satisfaction is simply how happy or content your employees are. Engagement is a measure of their level of motivation and their potential for discretionary effort. Big difference.

While satisfaction is certainly a component—or driver—of engagement, so are many other things, like trust, company pride, feeling valued, commitment, and feeling your work is significant or relevant. Given that definition, it’s easy to see how someone could be satisfied, but not engaged. Having a bunch of happy employees might make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside; but it’s not going to necessarily have any impact on the business.

So first and foremost, we need to make sure we’re measuring the right thing: engagement. Happy employees are simply that: happy. There’s little statistical correlation between simple satisfaction and business performance. However, there’s ample statistical evidence showing a significant correlation between engagement and business results.

In a recent survey process at AMC, we found that our theatres with most improved employee engagement scores tended to have most improved business metrics as well, including better concession performance, better cost control, and better customer service metrics than those at less-engaged units. The correlation was so significant as to overshadow any impact from outside factors.

National employee engagement experts at Kenexa tell us that our experience at AMC is played out over and over again on a national level. So it’s easy to make the case that engagement (i.e., discretionary effort) is even more crucial in the current economic climate than it is under milder conditions. So measuring it becomes just as important as measuring more traditional business metrics.

In addition, the simple fact that an employer cares enough to ask their employees what they think can have a significant impact on engagement and business results. This so-called “Hawthorne Effect” was named after the Hawthorne Works, home of a 1955 study that was commissioned to determine a connection between lighting levels and productivity.

The researcher, Henry A. Landsberger, determined that productivity improved in cases of higher light levels and lower light levels. Intrigued, he began manipulating other work conditions. He found that no matter what condition was being varied, productivity improved in both the test group and the control group. Landsberger concluded that the mere fact that the employees knew work conditions were being measured had resulted in higher levels of productivity.

So now that I’ve talked you into employee engagement surveying, how do you make sure you’re doing it “right”? Here are some lessons we’ve learned at AMC.

First: It’s important to note that anonymity is crucial for any employee survey, so utilizing a third party to conduct the research is almost an absolute requirement. No matter how open, honest and friendly your work culture is, your employees are going to be reluctant to voice their honest concerns if they can’t do so without fear of retribution.

Second: Make use of existing technology (i.e., web-based tools) to conduct your survey. In today’s world, especially given the tech-savvy employment demographic at our theatres, paper-based surveys are simply not conducive to high participation—and even less conducive to robust data analysis.

Third: Follow up. The most important—and most often missed—aspect of good survey practices is that once your survey results are in, you should share them with participants. You don’t want your employees thinking that their concerns are just going into a “black hole.”

Moreover, it’s important to go beyond sharing and engage employees in a dialogue about the survey responses so that they can help you determine the causes of the issues raised. Surveys alone can rarely provide the level of detail necessary for impactful action. For instance, you may find out that your employees don’t feel they’re appropriately recognized for their work, but you won’t know what specific actions (or lack thereof) are causing this impression until you engage in a dialogue with them. That’s right; you have to talk, and, yes—I’m afraid—listen to them as well.

Lastly, we need to show our employees that we’re actually doing something about their concerns. And it’s not enough to simply act on those concerns; you may need to be really obtuse about it and tell them the reason you’re taking these steps is based on their input from the survey: “You said this was a concern, so we’re doing this …”

Compelling research shows that surveying employees and not following up (sharing, listening, acting) actually has a negative impact on engagement. In other words, you’d be better off not surveying them at all. Conversely, supervisors who do the best survey follow-up also produce the most engaged employees.

So at the end of the day, it’s really not that difficult to measure employee engagement; and it’s arguably as crucial as measuring more “traditional” metrics. In many ways, managing a business without measuring engagement is like driving a car without looking at the gas gauge. You can certainly drive without it, but eventually you’re going to run out of gas—and probably at the most inopportune time…like, say, in the middle of an economic downturn.

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes comments or questions via e-mail at