How External Benchmarking Holds Back Employee Engagement

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Written by Alex Wilke

The old adage, ‘you can only improve what you can measure’ has led to undesirable side effects when it comes to Employee Engagement. One of the biggest problems is the continued use of external benchmarks. These shouldn’t be confused with internal benchmarks, where you track progress against your own results – over time and against internal best practice.

There are five reasons companies use external benchmarks, in a process that is normally managed by an external HR consultancy:

There are other benefits too, especially for consultancies:


So how are these benchmarks compiled in the first place? There are three main approaches:


Larger consultancies have a lot of data available from the work they do with other customers. They then take the key comparable questions from across all their clients’ data, segment and anonymise it. Et voila – you have your benchmarks.

In reality, good quality benchmarks are a bit more complex as they need to be segmented by sector and region, and the data used should be as fresh as possible.


A second approach is to do a representative sample survey with a company’s competitors, using the same questions as the client. This typically targets 1,000-2,500 respondents from competitors to create the benchmarks. Some vendors may argue that they have higher sample sizes, the largest benchmark database or the freshest data. However the principle behind the benchmarks remains the same.


Many vendors tell you which companies are ‘best in class’ and explain that you should aspire to achieve similar results. Some will even give out prizes to those companies who have achieved or exceeded targets, or have improved their results most. However, it’s a fact that 100% accurate benchmark data does not exist, although they will argue that it doesn’t need to be 100% accurate, because benchmarks are meant to serve as a guide – highlighting where you are doing well or need to improve.


So let’s look at the price you pay for this level of apparent comfort. There are three main issues:


You have to largely adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach – rather than tailoring and fine tuning a questionnaire to your company’s specific situation and need. For example, questions about whether your employees understand, and are aligned with, your strategic objectives can only be asked in general terms, rather than relating directly to your business.


External benchmarking makes a number of suppositions:

You can only operate within your internal boundaries – so focusing on what someone else is doing may not be right for you.


The biggest problem with using external benchmarks is that they condense the results to a comparable/benchmark-able score. If reaching or exceeding this score is also subject to monetary incentives, you have a perfect recipe for driving the wrong sort of behaviour by managers! It is not hard to manipulate your team to give better scores. As managers know when the survey is coming, they learn very quickly which behaviours are needed over the short term to persuade staff to give better ratings.

Essentially you see Goodhart’s law in operation. Named after economist Charles Goodhart, this states: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

That’s exactly what seems to be happening with external engagement benchmarks. The focus on targets means that many companies have lost sight of what engagement actually is and why it’s important to them.

Engagement isn’t just a numbers game. You need to ask yourself the question, how many business improvements have we achieved as a result of decisions that were driven by our external benchmarking? There may have been lots in the first couple of years when you identified some black spots and fixed them. But after three years of benchmark focus – what value are you really getting?


You don’t need to throw out the baby with the bath water and abandon all external comparators. There is nothing wrong with tracking key driver questions, such as Employer NPS, Intention to Stay or similar. The key is to ensure that you get real insight from your data and ask questions which are both relevant to your employees and to your business’ current situation, strategy and objectives. Ultimately, it’s behaviour which makes the difference and not scores on a page.

Benchmarking has nothing to do with creating real engagement, sustainable improvements and changing organisational culture for the better. You cannot get the insights you need to carry out meaningful actions that will improve the workplace, increase productivity, or entice your workforce to go the extra mile. Essentially it is deliberately dumbed down to ensure compatibility and largely follows a one-size-fits- all approach. What incentives are there for managers who achieve their score targets to do anything different, embrace innovation or make changes to meet the generational demands of the workforce?

So if you are aiming for mediocrity and are happy to train your managers to adopt short term measures and avoid challenging management tasks, rather than giving your employees a real voice in driving your business forward, external benchmarks might still be a good way to achieve this. If you want to increase engagement and make feedback central to business change at all levels, look beyond them to internal metrics that focus on your company and its specific challenges, objectives and needs.

This blog was first published on HR Zone.