On today’s episode of the RecruitingDaily Podcast, William Tincup speaks to Matthew from Peoplelogic about why surveys are not doing what you think they are when it comes to employee engagement.
Some Conversation Highlights:
Listening time: 29 minutes
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This is RecruitingDaily’s Recruiting Live podcast where we look at the strategies behind the world’s best talent acquisition teams. We talk recruiting, sourcing, and talent acquisition. Each week, we take one over-complicated topic and break it down so that your three-year-old can understand it. Make sense? Are you ready to take your game to the next level? You’re at the right spot. You’re now entering the mind of a hustler. Here’s your host, William Tincup.
William Tincup (00:34):
Ladies and gentlemen, this is William Tincup. You are listening to the RecruitingDaily Podcast. Today, we have Matthew on from Peoplelogic. Our subject today, or our topic today is why surveys are not doing what you think they are for employee engagement. Let’s jump into introductions first. Matthew, would you do us a favor and introduce both yourself and Peoplelogic?
Matthew Schmidt (00:57):
Sure. Thanks, William. I’m the CEO and founder here at Peoplelogic. Peoplelogic is on a mission to really disrupt the employee engagement and retention space without the need for surveys.
William Tincup (01:12):
Let’s talk about surveys first. The history of surveys. Because I came to employee surveys through the old employee satisfaction survey. The annual survey that we would send out and then basically disregard. What’s your take? What’s your history with surveys as an employee and as a founder?
Matthew Schmidt (01:44):
That’s a really interesting question. I think we were just looking it up this morning, actually. Employee engagement surveys have actually been around since about the ’20s, the 1920s, as employee attitude surveys in factories. We’ve been saying that these surveys have been a great way to measure engagement for the last 25 years, but it’s actually much closer to a century.
And so, I come to surveys as a founder and having … One, use them to really get a sense of how did my employees feel about me as a leader. And then, later we did light quarterly surveys and annual surveys. The surveys to understand, “Are we a best place to work?” And so, on and so forth. But all we really got out of those was mostly the information from the people who were most negative, who were having a bad day, who were grumpy, who always had the same problems.
They weren’t getting paid enough. They didn’t like their promotion track. You know the drill. And so, we never found them very useful. I think that’s the case with most founders of startups as they try to better understand their people.
William Tincup (03:08):
The useful part. I’ve also used the word, “Actionable,” or I’ve heard the word actionable. It’s like, “Okay. And?” What do I do with this data?
Matthew Schmidt (03:18):
Well, I think you’re right. I think surveys do have a place. The annual survey is a place that employees can provide the feedback about the direction of the company in a first-person active way. The trick is that the employees expect you to actually act on those.
William Tincup (03:44):
Well, if they’re going to take time out of their day to fill out a survey that you’re sending them … I think that’s a fair expectation that you actually do something with the data. I think that’s fair.
Matthew Schmidt (04:00):
William Tincup (04:01):
It’s funny because we went from the annual. And then, in the last 15 years or so, we’ve just increased the velocity. I know you’ve witnessed some of the same things. It’s like, “Well, we can do pulse surveys.” Well, what’s that? Instead of asking the battery of questions, let’s ask people one question, but let’s ask the question every day. Or let’s ask questions every hour or whatever. Again, it’s plagued with some of the same problems, but now we’ve just ramped up the velocity of those things. Have you seen anything different there?
Matthew Schmidt (04:42):
No. You’re exactly right. I think that we’re just contributing to the survey fatigue that employees feel. Not just the employees, but also the people that populate our people teams and our HR teams are having to spend more time and effort analyzing the feedback from these things, following up on it. Making sure that everybody’s feeling okay. Making sure that the managers are listening. Making sure they’re holding their one-on-ones and talking about these things.
It just becomes this cycle. On top of it … Wow. Yes. We’re feeling like we’re being more proactive. Even the name of some of these newer solutions. We called them Employee Listening Solutions, which maybe that’s a great name that all the analysts came up with, but it sounds pretty creepy to me. As we’re trying to understand … A quick anecdote on surveys. If you’ve traveled recently and you’ve been into the bathroom in the airport. Now, there’s surveys that have followed us into the bathroom in the airport.
William Tincup (05:54):
The mood. The mood thing. Yes.
Matthew Schmidt (05:56):
Yes. Yes. “Is this clean today?” Tap here in the bathroom. Right?
William Tincup (06:02):
I’ve always struggled with the mood things. Especially at airports. But it is like, “Are you measuring my mood from the flight that I just had? Or that I just washed that my hands?” I’m sure people don’t struggle as much as I do with stuff like this, but I look at it and go, “What is the question that you’re asking for me? Clean is relative to what? You want me to eat in here?”
Matthew Schmidt (06:34):
Yes. Exactly. Well, that’s what our survey … We look at the weekly pulse that companies are sending out. It’s, “Well, how are you feeling today?” Well, it’s precisely the wrong question to ask. Because now, feelings have come into the play about whether we’re engaged in work. And that’s totally impacted by things that maybe and in most cases have nothing to do with work.
William Tincup (07:00):
You’d always ask those questions. Friday at 4:30. How do you feel about work? Well, you know what? I feel fantastic about work, because there’s only 30 minutes left.
Matthew Schmidt (07:15):
William Tincup (07:17):
Years ago, when we’d do the Best Places to Work thing, we would always do surveys after we gave people raises, which is a little dark.
Matthew Schmidt (07:29):
That is … As long as you give everybody. Because you know have to actually score quite high on those. But the one thing that I do remember from those Best Places to Work surveys is that they’re really quite long.
William Tincup (07:46):
Yeah. Oh my goodness.
Matthew Schmidt (07:48):
You’re really asking your team to go through quite a lot of effort to give rank to the best place to work on this.
William Tincup (07:56):
A question about feedback real quick. I’ve always looked to have feedback in a two by two. If you go back to BCG, the famous two by two. On one side, it’s either positive or negative. Then, the other, it’s either solicited or unsolicited.
The way I’ve looked at career feedback or feedback with employees, both directions, if we’re asking for it or if they’re giving it … If it’s tethered to a profile, they tend not tell us the truth, because of fear of repercussions. If it’s anonymous, there might be the truth in there, but there’s a lot of junk in there too. Destroy all that, by the way. What’s your relationship with feedback?
Matthew Schmidt (08:53):
Hey. I think here at Peoplelogic, for our own culture, we tend to operate with a fairly open and honest culture. Where feedback is direct but respectable. Or respectful. Respectable would be the wrong word there.
William Tincup (09:15):
Or it could be both.
Matthew Schmidt (09:19):
I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind when you’re giving or requesting feedback. At the end of the day, feedback is between two people. Now, if you have the right cultural norms in place within your organization, there should not be fear to provide feedback. Positive or negative. And so, at the end of the day, it comes down to, “How do you build the proper culture within your organization that encourages people to give direct feedback?”
I think that’s really the first step. In terms of the anonymity piece, I come from the early days of the internet and in building communities on the internet. That was my last company. That was really my first role and my first company was in doing that. What we learned is that those that could hide behind anonymity in that world, which is not the case in the employee world, but in that context, those that could hide behind some semblance of anonymity were much more willing to be negative.
William Tincup (10:46):
Matthew Schmidt (10:47):
To contribute negatively. To put on a different persona than they actually were in person. That was very different. The person that who knew who you were. Or if you met them at a conference, they were very different than that persona that they were able to hide behind in the more anonymous world.
William Tincup (11:11):
That’s interesting. That’s fascinating on a couple of levels. Because you wonder … Does it give them some type of forum to then say all the wrongs? Or are they creating drama? Is it a version of the truth or their truth? Or a version of other people’s truth?
Matthew Schmidt (11:37):
It varies. Exactly. I think it varies and it just depends on the person. But this was something that we saw quite a lot. For a large portion of our world, we required first and last names. As if you were meeting in person. When you go to a conference, your badge has your name on it. It says where you are, who you’re from, those types of things. And so, when we built communities, it was putting that real-person touch on top of it. That to me is something that is … Yes. I believe in the privacy of data and in respecting that privacy of data when we use modern tools to analyze engagement.
At the same time, that extends to … Well, we shouldn’t be showing people’s emails that they’re sending to everybody in the company. Or messages that you rightly expect to have some semblance of privacy too. But leveraging the information in a way that allows us to understand engagement or feedback or health of an organization. It’s critical to get a broad view of the information across all the data sources.
William Tincup (13:09):
Interesting. There’s a concept called liquid courage. People that have courage after a few drinks. I think sometimes people have screen courage, where they can hide behind their screen and hide behind anonymity as well. Let’s talk a little bit about employee engagement. Because I struggle with employee engagement in the sense of, “Do I actually care?”
And then, it sounds a little dark. Well, with my top performers. If they’re not engaged, but they’re still performing? Okay. It seems like I care deeply about those that are disengaged for whatever reason and it’s impacting their performance. I care a lot about that. Because then, “Can I fix that,” would be the question. Before we get too far down the rabbit hole, what’s your relationship with just employee engagement as a concept?
Matthew Schmidt (14:14):
I think that there’s a couple of interesting things there. One, companies where they have high employee engagement typically outperform companies that don’t.
William Tincup (14:26):
Matthew Schmidt (14:26):
They’re more profitable. The amount of revenue per employee is higher. Their customers are happier. And so, there’s a direct relation between employee engagement and your customer health. Because those that are engaged are feeling more fulfilled with their work. They’re trying harder and they’re delivering better service to your customers. This is across a variety of industries. The corollary is also true.
When you have poor employee engagement and you have negativity and all sorts of toxic traits that come from disengagement, it’s a virus. It actually is. It spreads very quickly through an organization. That’s where back channels start to get created. It’s where people start to talk rumors. It’s where they stop trying as hard. Whether that’s a high performer that’s doing that … High performer plus disengagement is usually that high-performing asshole that you’ve seen within the organization.
William Tincup (15:55):
Matthew Schmidt (15:56):
Usually, it works for a while.
William Tincup (16:00):
Matthew Schmidt (16:00):
But then, eventually it bleeds into everything else and becomes a problem.
William Tincup (16:08):
It’s that, “At what cost?”
Matthew Schmidt (16:09):
At what cost?
William Tincup (16:10):
Matthew Schmidt (16:11):
And so, it’s not just that you have a person that’s disengaged. You don’t just have one person. You probably have three to five others that are also disengaged because they interact with that person who’s disengaged. Or will become disengaged. And that’s the risk and why it matters to organizations to get those early warning signs around engagement.
William Tincup (16:35):
One of the things I noticed at HR Tech is a lot of EX. A lot of language around employee experience. And of course, it left talent intelligence and employee experience. But the employee experience, EX part, it’s been around for a little while of course. So it’s not super new. But what’s the difference between the employee experience and employee engagement in your mind?
Matthew Schmidt (17:03):
I think engagement is a component of employee experience. I think employee experience covers the broader employee life cycle. From the time that you recruit them to the time that you offboard them. Some of the points in that life cycle are natural. People come and go from companies all the time. Some of them are forced. It’s how you manage that, that becomes important.
Data is becoming an ever more important component of the employee experience, as we start to try to understand how to optimize the career growth of an employee while they’re with a company. How are we growing their skills? How are we making sure that their onboarding experience is great? How do we make sure that when we offboard them, they become a contributing member to our company alumni group?
All of those things are bigger components. Engagement is the thread that ties everything together. You need to have great engagement of the people on the team and everybody has got to be on the bus, but the experience is a bigger, longer-arced thing that has different points in time across the life cycle.
William Tincup (18:30):
I love it. Perfect. In our title, we talked about why surveys are not driving what you think they are for employee engagement. Let’s take the, “Not,” out of that. What do people think that surveys are doing for employee engagement?
Matthew Schmidt (18:53):
I think that’s the status quo, frankly. An entire generation of people, leaders, and HR professionals have come into the market thinking this is the only way to understand the health of their teams. And so, it’s really about, “We can now get, on a scale of one to 10, how is somebody feeling. What are the things that they want to see changed?”
I think that’s what surveys are good at. Not so much a score, because that has to do with whatever the moment in time is. But in terms of understanding what your employees want you to change. Not so much about the help. Somebody could be red for the next three years and would’ve never left, but you don’t know the impact of keeping that person around for being in that state. Or that could just be their personality and they’re always like that.
William Tincup (20:09):
Negative Nancy. My mother’s name is Nancy, so I can say that. Maybe that’s part of their charm too? I’m super sarcastic, which is great for some, but for some folks, it drives them a little batty. They’d like for me not to be sarcastic all the time. Some of it, you’re right. How do you separate for folks that are always … Maybe they see the glass half-empty all the time. It has no impact on their work. They’re still doing a great job.
I love that you brought in team engagement. Because I think there is something really nuanced to … Instead of just employee engagement and part of the employee experience. That’s all great. But especially, where they’re inside of a team, there’s another layer to that. There’s more chemistry to it. You mentioned something about health, which I thought was really fascinating. Are we using these surveys? Are we thinking that surveys are going to give us a pulse on how we’re doing as an organization? As an organizational health score?
Matthew Schmidt (21:24):
And so, in a lot of ways we’ve taken some of the, for better or worse, theories behind NPS with customers and tried to apply them to employees.
William Tincup (21:41):
Matthew Schmidt (21:45):
We could have an entire separate conversation about whether or not that’s useful or not. With the surveys, they’re good at telling you what’s already happened.
William Tincup (21:57):
The rear-view mirror.
Matthew Schmidt (21:59):
It is the rear-view mirror. And so, they tell you your health in the past, to some extent. They might tell you where you need to change directionally, but they’re not giving you any sense of, “What are the early warning signs?” Giving you the things that already happened.
They’re not fairly predictive. To some degree, they’re also not telling you the impact of things that are perhaps related. At best, you understand an aggregate level for a particular team. And so, it becomes very hard to make it actionable, and allowing the people who are responsible for the culture and health of a team to drive the change effectively.
William Tincup (22:59):
It’s like in every finance commercial you’ve ever seen in your life. They always say, “Past performance doesn’t necessarily produce future performance.” Everyone’s seen the Charles Schwab commercial. There’s no difference here. If you are looking at survey data, again, I love that if it can maybe give you some idea of where some problems are.
It can’t give you the relatedness. I really like that you drew that out. It’s like, “You’re looking at this one issue over here and another issue over there. They’re related.” You might not see them as related, because that’s not how it comes up. And so, I love that.
Matthew Schmidt (23:45):
That’s so important when you are looking at that organizational health. Then, it is about the interconnectedness between teams. And the people is a huge component of that. Our organizations thrive on the informal leaders that are the social super connectors. The 3% that really are the ones that drive the change that needs to happen. That drive the health of the organization. Most organizations simply have no idea who those people are or how they need to engage with them.
William Tincup (24:28):
Do you think that practitioners or even executives are using survey data as predictive? Like they’re looking at the data of, “This is a problem. Will it be a problem in the future?”
Matthew Schmidt (24:40):
No. I think that what we’re hearing from so many companies these days, and we talk to hundreds of companies per month … What we’re seeing is that companies have been trying to do it this old way with surveys. They’re still having a ton of churn. Or they’re merging three companies and they are struggling to understand whether the companies are acclimating well into one single culture. Or they’re going through a lot of the change management.
They just simply don’t have a baseline. And then, the survey doesn’t tell them anything about that. And so, that’s the challenge that we’re hearing. There’s a whole new class of problems and challenges that friends and family that are in HR and people operations and your people teams … That have been pushed on them through the pandemic and into this newer way of working that the current crop of tools is simply not prepared to be able to handle.
William Tincup (26:04):
Last question. You mentioned it earlier, but I want to drill into it. Survey exhaustion. Obviously, there’s articles and stuff like that thematically. I know that we know it’s a problem. For surveys, what is too much? What’s the line in the sand of what we should use surveys for that would be an appropriate use? Versus surveys that we’re using inappropriately and thusly causing that exhaustion?
Matthew Schmidt (26:45):
That’s a great question. It really, for better or worse, depends on each organization’s culture. How they express feedback, how they receive it, how often they do it is part of it. Certainly, we’re seeing it’s questionable whether trying to get the results and do the analysis every quarter is worth it.
But I think that’s probably the most frequent that you’re going to see directionally correct value. Because at the end of the day, as I said earlier, people want to have you act on the feedback. If you’re going any more frequent than quarterly, you’re constantly trying to play catch up. You’re constantly trying to respond to this feedback.
William Tincup (27:48):
Or you’re not actioning the data.
Matthew Schmidt (27:50):
William Tincup (27:50):
And if you’re actioning the data, then the future data is probably not going to be as great. Because people want some incentive.
Matthew Schmidt (28:01):
They’re still complaining about things … They’re still focused on the things from before.
William Tincup (28:03):
Matthew Schmidt (28:05):
That’s the other piece of it. You have to give yourself enough time to be able to do those things.
William Tincup (28:14):
Go ahead and finish your thought.
Matthew Schmidt (28:15):
No. No. Go ahead.
William Tincup (28:16):
I was just going to say, this has been awesome just to dig into this. Because I don’t think I’ve ever really dug into this particular topic. A, thank you for your time and wisdom. And you’re definitely going to need to come on the show again.
Matthew Schmidt (28:30):
Absolutely. Thank you, William.
William Tincup (28:33):
Thank you to everyone for listening to the RecruitingDaily podcast. Until next time.
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William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.