Geoffrey Matthews will be speaking at the Employee Engagement Summit in London on the 16th April 2013.

Employee engagement surveys can be something of a high-stakes exercise for HR departments. Not only are they expensive, but they’re time-consuming, and they inevitably raise expectations from employees that something significant will be done as a result. Months of preparation may have been needed, involving not only HR but often internal communications, senior management, employee representatives, and external consultants. Hours may be spent in defining survey questions, setting up organisations in survey reports, or refining survey software.

Not surprisingly, an engagement survey can start to feel like an Olympic event, with its launch like the firing of the starting pistol on the athletics track – the beginning of a tough race to the finish, where in this case the winner’s reward is to secure a major, positive difference in the engagement level in workplace. But do outcomes match expectations? Are you heading for a gold medal, or last place? Here’s 10 major signs to watch out for that may indicate whether you’re heading for a winning sprint – or a stumble that means you hardly get out of the starting blocks.

Sign Risk
1. The HR team is very visibly taking the lead in the survey efforts Engagement is seen as HR’s task and fails to be taken seriously by management
2. Senior management mostly talks about business topics Organisation’s leadership fails to give visible sponsorship to the survey and its follow up
3. Hundreds of reports and survey extracts being produced  Data overload and resulting “analysis paralysis”
4. Extensive action plans across the organisation Follow up efforts are spread too thinly and activities “run out of steam”
5. Basing action plans purely on survey results Actions miss the target by not taking into account other sources of data or feedback (e.g. employee focus groups)
6. Action plan focuses on “quick wins” Real risk that tough issues of most concern to employees get overlooked, weakening the credibility of the actions identified
7. Survey follow up is a high level list of actions Without adequate project plans and success measurement, actions lack “teeth”
8. Engagement is not covered in executive reviews or metrics Not seen as a core business priority, so lack of follow up is unlikely to have any consequence for the executive concerned
9. Significant emphasis is placed on engagement scores  Focus on “making the numbers” rather than achieving real organisational change
10. Communication efforts focused on announcing survey results Follow up action goes largely unnoticed and so has less impact as a whole

Of course this list is not exhaustive and there are many other potential risks, but this only underlines the importance of taking focused and meaningful action. Given the workload involved in launching and running an engagement survey, it’s tempting to ease off once the results are communicated. But the survey only tells you where you are now – if you want to improve, it’s the follow up actions that matter and this is where the real work begins. Just as a runner has to keep striving to the finishing tape in order to win, so the survey race is not won until the right follow up steps are defined, seen through to completion and they have been seen to have made a difference. As Jesse Owens, the legendary black American runner and Olympic gold medallist, put it “We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”

We know the engagement challenge that exists in many organisations, which was borne out by the CIPD’s Winter 2012-13 Employee Outlook which showed yet another drop – to just 35% – in the proportion of employees that are engaged at work across the UK. If you’re about to conduct your own survey, it’s taking place at a critical time and, more than ever, it makes sense to take the time to start thinking not just about running the survey itself smoothly, but how you can capitalise on it to help your organisation for the better. The Employee Engagement Summit on 16th April is designed to help HR managers with this and is focused on practical tips to help build engagement, and I’ll be talking then about “Making engagement survey follow-up really effective”. This way, you too can avoid the 10 tell-tale signs above and make sure your efforts really make a real difference.