Employee Experience Is Changing. Are You Changing With It?
In order for all employees to feel a deep sense of belonging regardless of their background or demographics, we need to measure employee experience in a way that matches the lived employee experience.
Over the past year, employee experience has become the new hot term for people-science teams. The idea that we can understand how an employee experiences his or her workplace and relate it back to positive outcomes for the organization has a lot of HR folks and executives drooling. Overnight, startups and legacy organizations are creating tools and products to measure the "employee experience" at breakneck rates. But while the terminology may be new, the model for how we think about and measure employee experience hasn’t changed.
Employee experience tools and products suffer from a few fatal flaws. The first is that they are driven and developed by a homogenous group of (overly) educated, wealthy, white people. The second is that we aren’t asking the questions that matter most to people. Finally, the questions in most employee-experience surveys skew towards positivity.
Together, these flaws create a climate where we aren’t collecting data on the right factors to measure employee experience, and what we are measuring largely reflects the experiences of a white-dominant workforce. Inadvertently, this may leave out the experiences of historically underrepresented groups such as gender-nonconforming individuals, people of color, immigrants and first-generation college-goers.
So, let’s start with the issue of diversity.
A systemic diversity problem
Research, in general, has a history of historically over-representing Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic voices (or WEIRD, for short). In the business setting, most of what we “know” about organizational behavior comes from an even more narrow group: primarily white men. For example, the most popular measure of “good” leadership was created the same year that 96.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs were white men.
Beyond the boardroom, the people who have the qualifications to measure employee experience have a diversity problem. Psychometrics, or the science of measuring human emotion, is a specialized field requiring advanced statistics skills and often a graduate degree. Estimates show the vast majority of the psychometricians working in the United States today are also WEIRD.
Diving deeper, 87% of them are white, 37% have a master’s or doctoral degree, and the average salary is over $86,000 a year. The idea that I, a white-presenting female with my fancy statistics, Ph.D. and keyboard hands, know what to measure about the average worker’s experience by relying on my handy dandy (extremely biased) peer-reviewed research is patronizing at best and bad science at worst.
This is particularly a problem because the workplace demographics are shifting rapidly, and science is not moving at the same rate. By 2040, the majority of the U.S., racially and ethnically, will no longer be white. The vast majority of all new hires in 2019 were people of color, particularly women of color. Employers who can’t adapt will lose both talent and growth.
To adapt, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way we measure what makes a good employee experience: We need to incorporate more diverse voices and viewpoints. But first we must work on the measurement challenge.
In our consulting practice and workplace studies, we constantly see clients who want us to measure how they’re doing on diversity, equity and inclusion using six questions or fewer. Their rationale is that “No one wants to spend more than a minute taking a survey.”
However, when measuring people’s emotions, there’s too much error when you force complex topics, like how a person feels, into a six-question survey.
Six questions aren’t even enough to measure employee engagement, one of many facets of the employee experience, in a reliable way. Best practices for developing employee questionnaires suggest that you should have a minimum of two to three questions for each emotion, skill or capability you want to understand. One of the shortest validated questionnaires for measuring something as simple as “employee engagement” is around nine questions long — because engagement isn’t one thing. It includes absorption in your work, dedication to your job and vigor towards your career.
Now take something as complex as a climate for diversity, equity and inclusion — belonging, fairness, access to social opportunity, the environment a direct manager creates, work-life policies, the values of individuals, transparency in reporting, pay equity and so many other things can come into play. All of which means that you need to ask a lot of questions.
A few companies have solved the “number of questions” problem. For example, Amazon requires employees to answer a question every day before logging in to their workstation. Meaning, they can collect up to 260 data points on each employee without overwhelming them with a 60-minute survey.
However, while they’ve solved that measurement problem, they’ve created another. Having HR control access to the data and only allowing “leaders” above a certain level of visibility have created an atmosphere of secrecy and lack of trust. Reports, based on insider reporting, suggest that employees at Amazon don’t answer the questions honestly. Instead, they say they’re fearful of retaliation and are encouraged by managers to respond positively. When people don’t feel safe sharing their actual experience, you have bad data and can’t trust your results.
This leads us to the final point: a fixation with the positive.
Focusing only on the good stuff
Many leaders and HR practitioners have a spoken or unspoken belief that employees can’t handle the truth. There’s a sense inside companies that if it comes out to the workforce that things aren’t "perfect," there will be complete anarchy. This results in both questions not being asked and information not being shared about the emotional health of the workforce.
When we don’t ask questions because we are afraid of the answer, it leaves out a huge part of the employee experience. Employee well-being involves both the absence of negative as well as the presence of positive emotion. Organizational science has tended to focus on the positive because that’s what businesses tend to favor (i.e., what companies will buy and implement). More and more, researchers point out that this can lead to toxic positivity: the belief that people should only focus on the positive even in the face of highly tragic circumstances.
In business, we’ve seen massive failures from the consequences of leaders who won’t listen to legitimate concerns: Theranos, Fyre Festival, WeWork, Uber and even Microsoft and Cisco, which have both faced class-action lawsuits stemming from workplace inequity. Toxic positivity has negative consequences for the people who are constantly told to overlook their actual circumstances and only focus on the good. For example, one study found that people who don’t acknowledge negative emotions often feel worse than those who do.
Traditionally, people who work in employee experience are trained never to ask questions that an organization won’t do anything with. This ends up rarely serving people, but rather helps the people at the top who want to focus on the “real work” (i.e., 51% of white executives think DE&I is a distraction from real work) and aren’t motivated to change the things that impact workers personally. Take Amazon as an example again, whose DE&I efforts haven’t moved forward because employees working on them don’t have access to the data and tools needed to understand racial-inequity issues.
It’s possible to create a future of work where all employees feel a deep sense of belonging regardless of their background or demographics. In order to make that future a reality, we need to measure employee experience in a way that matches the lived employee experience. We need to put employees in the driver’s seat. Giving people a choice over what matters most to them, access to the results so they can drive change and control over the process can fundamentally shift what we understand about the way we experience work.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor