I don’t want to take anything away from the BlessingWhite study of employee engagement: The State of Employee Engagement 2008. As a market research product for their firm, it is excellent. For those of us interested in understanding employee engagement, the report is informative and raises many interesting questions, e.g., What should we do/can we do about employees at different levels of engagement? However, the findings should be read with several important caveats in mind.

First, the report claims that in North America “…fewer than 1 in 3 employees (29%) are fully engaged. 19% are actually disengaged.” This suggests that BlessingWhite surveyed a representative sample of all employees in North America, which they didn’t. It appears that the respondents are skewed towards people who are in management, from HR divisions, and provide banking/financial services. Although the response rate was quite large (3,342 were from North America), it is not reflective of all North America employees.

Also important to keep in mind is that the survey uses two questions to identify levels of engagement: “I like my work and do it well” and “I help achieve the goals of my organization.” In effect, this is the BlessingWhite definition of engaged employees: they like their work, they think they do it well, and they think they are helping to achieve their organizations’ goals. That’s their definition; it might not be yours. And we can’t tell from this survey, of course, how well respondents do their work or if they actually do help their organizations achieve goals, only that this is the respondent’s perception of things.

Another caution I offer is about the “five distinct employee segments”: “The Engaged”, “Almost Engaged”,“Honeymooners & Hamsters”, “Crash & Burners”, and “The Disengaged.” The report and press release imply that these categories and their descriptions emerged from the survey data, but, apparently, that is not the case. This part of the findings is a bit misleading. It is a huge leap in logic from the survey results to the motivations and behaviors described in the framework. Maybe this framework can be supported by the 40 interviews done as part of the study. I can’t tell that from the report.

Finally (for now), some of the comments in the report suggest that surveys are the only way to understand employee engagement and how engagement relates to business performance. That’s just not true. Indepth interviews and focus groups, for example, can offer tremendous insights that do not rely on statistical correlations. We can use these qualitative methods to describe engagement and how it contributes to performance for particular people in particular organizations.

I would just hate to see “one in three” become the accepted statistic used when anyone discusses employee engagement in North America (See HR.com), when we can’t say with any reasonable degree of confidence that the statistic is descriptive of all employees and for all definitions of engagement.

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