What is a Good Employee Engagement Score?

I’m going to take a different tack on today’s post.  Instead of waxing poetic on a point of HR or employee engagement I’m going to start a discussion and then walk away and let you all continue.

See, I don’t have an answer for the question I headlined this post with. I truly don’t.

What I do have is a list as long as my arm of consultants and vendors who have the answer. (Or say they do.)

At least they say they can improve your employee engagement score.

And I don’t doubt they can.  In fact I’m sure they can.  Through the power of the Hawthorne Effect (debated as true but still held up as fact – sort of like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) almost any change you make in your organization around employee engagement will have some noticeable impact on our engagement scores. It’s inevitable.

In fact I’ve coined the term Hawthorneing™ to communicate the idea of making changes and then saying those changes are the holy grail of engagement.

The Scoring

The issue is this – depending on your source you can see engagement as:

  • Aon 2013 Results – 40% disengaged world wide.
  • Blessing White 2012 Survey Results – 37% not engaged (They use some weird names for their categories so this may be a bit off.)
  • Gallup 2013 Report – only 30% of employee are engaged.

And there are various other reports that say basically the same thing – approximately 40% of our work force is disengaged.

In addition, the percentage of disengaged workers has stayed pretty much the same over the past few years – up a point or two, down a point or two.  Nothing really interesting. Just kinda hanging in there.

Companies and HR people have poured time and treasure into these measures to increase the percentage of engaged employees because the consultants told us that the company would be more successful and employees will get company logo tattoos if you do.  They will not just be engaged but committed!  Your profits will soar!  You will find the 13th crystal skull… you will achieve total consciousness!

But my question is this…

What if 40% is the right number?

What if – no matter what you do – 40% is the best we can hope for?  Sure, we’ll always have the outliers – those companies with ridiculous scores because of brainwashing and excess cash (I did not say Apple but you thought it!).  We’ll also have companies with very, very low scores – also with excess cash but less brainwashing (you thought Microsoft – don’t lie).

What if 40% is the normal set point for employee engagement?

What do you think?

Is engagement low because we don’t do enough to raise it or – no matter what we do to raise the score – on average – over time – will we always hover around 40% engaged?

Remember – on average. Don’t point to one outlier and say “see – that’s what it should be.”


FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. Ginger says:

    Interesting post, and even more interesting question. But I don’t think I want to bail and take the easy route that says “oh well, maybe 40% is all there is”. Looking around, hearing from staff, I think that in any organization you will hear ways to improve the workplace that are not necessarily the expensive ones, more often these are often the ways that improve engagement. Many organizations have not moved beyond the “you’re getting paid and there are many who would be willing to take your place….” management style – one of non-management you might say. And yet, we all want to have a workplace that we feel good at and feel good about, which I believe can happen with good management more than with a pay raise or added benefits.

    Why not go way back into the world of employee surveys: remember when people said they would take a lower paying job if it was more meaningful and if they were treated well? I think that came long before we called it “engagement” and those results came as a big suprise as the time, when the thinking was that it was all about the money. How would our engagement scores be now if organizations had looked deeper into that data, and then into their own workforce and looked at how to make their employees feel valued? And look at the data now, that says people leave managers, not jobs. Still think engagement might really be stuck at 40%?

    Just my 2cents (Cdn),

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Not really sure where you were heading here. My point is that over time – lots of time – companies have and continue to pour money into engagement solutions but with little to show for it. The number for engaged employees was in the high 30% in 2002 so in the last 10 years little has changed. I just wonder if 40% is a number that we just have to live with until we find a better way to connect. Not saying it can’t move – just should it? Is that the average that we can continue to expect? A theoretical limit on engagement in organizations – kind of like the Dunbar Number? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number

  2. Well, here’s one more source…
    At Quantum Workplace, our 2013 Employee Engagement Trends Report found 67.7% employees engaged and only 6.9% disengaged/2.9% hostile (http://www.quantumworkplace.com/resources/whitepapers/research-and-trends/employee-engagement-trends-report-2013). Why so different than the other sources? Our study is based on organizations that participate in Best Places to Work, organizations that clearly believe they have excellent culture with engaged employees because if they didn’t believe that, they wouldn’t compete.

    Having more than 40% of employees engaged might be a challenge for organizations at large, but something tells me that if nearly 5,000 organizations, so active in working on having a great culture that they’re willing to compete on it, can average 67.7% engaged employees, then engagement higher than 40% is attainable.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Agree – attainable. For some. But even those scores are cherry-picked. As you said – they wouldn’t participate unless they wanted to win the award – and therefore that could have a lot to do with the scores – causal? correlated?

      And… with roughly 5 million businesses in the US with over 500 employees (per http://www.census.gov/econ/susb/) 5,000 is roughly .1% of all businesses – that’s what I would consider the “outlier” factor I mentioned.

      I do think the number can be higher – but still – there little data that suggests it can/should/could be.

      Is higher better? Sometimes, more is just more.

  3. kd says:

    The right # is clearly the car number of your favorite NASCAR number.

    I’ll take little E driving the “88”….

  4. Becki G says:

    For whatever reason I am drawn to the idea of voter participations in elections. Just like work-the people running our government have impact on our lives. Why wouldn’t a person want to be engaged simply to protect their self interest and be as informed as possible about things? I kinda believe the same “muscle” is needed for both.

    Using this same thinking…..It seems that employee engagement should at least match voter participation. I would also argue that the state with the lowest average is baseline–Hawaii in 2012 at 44.2% turnout. That kinda lines up perfectly with your 40% number.

    States that are higher may have more campaigns to get people vote or may have “big issues” up for vote thus getting more participation than usual (related to Hawthorne idea–any change will make a change).

    Lastly, I would argue that our country is a perfect example of how “effective” a company can be with 40% engagement. Fairly functional (even certain areas are profitable)–but kinda super far from perfection.

    Thanks for getting me thinking…again!
    Voter data taken from: http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2012G.html

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Interesting connection there – I’m guessing there is similar psychology at work. If just enough people vote (or are engaged) the system works – fall below a certain threshold it falls apart. Now you have me thinking.

  5. Jon Williams says:

    We focus more on the trend than the absolute figure. Our scientist and data person here did a blog post a while ago on a very similar topic – http://blog.cultureamp.com/employee-engagement-up-20-in-2011

    The trend is really important. Pitching for annual increases in engagement can create some really odd behaviour in organizations.

    Year on year companies services and product lines will change. So how you measure and move engagement will need to change too. Having a core index of engagement questions is key to being able to see the trend. However, being able to adapt and ask the right questions (i.e. what acutally *drives* engagement) is just as important and often overlooked.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      However, wouldn’t changing the questions and the measures also nullify previous data? Isn’t that like measuring someone’s height one year and then their weight and then their body mass index and trying to determine if they are healthy? Seems to me that changing the questions and the interventions would make it nearly impossible to draw any conclusions worth their salt.

      • Jon Williams says:

        You’re right. Particularly on your “index” of engagement. Thing like being proud to work here, recommend to others. These tend to be very fixed, although I’d argue they’d still need to evolve over a long, long horizon to stay relevant.

        However, there are also questions that drive engagement. Do you feel your pay is fair? (this rarely drives engagement btw) Do you get the right feedback from your manager? Do you believe in the vision of the senior leaders? This will change and regular pulses on different topics can help.

        To keep the metaphor – you keep tracking your BMI, but you might find you’re also tracking how that’s impacted by calories, steps taken, hours of sleep. What you track might depend on the circumstances and what works.

        For example, you might want to focus on Manager Effectiveness. Or you could be moving to new offices. The data you gather needs to adapt to the conditions and your focus as an organization.

  6. If engagement levels maxed out at 40%, it would spell doom for many industries. Hospitality, for instance—imagine if you arrived at a nice hotel for your honeymoon and only 4 out of 10 employees cared about you during your stay. Or the manufacturing industry—high disengagement can cause on-the-job accidents and lowered productivity, and that’s just for starters.

    While 100% engagement may not be realistic, shouldn’t it be the goal? High turnover and disengagement may be unavoidable in industries like fast food or retail, but the 40% figure must be improved some organizations simply won’t succeed.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      I don’t know – can an engaged employee still provide quality service? Probably. They could treat me like gold and then go steal the shampoo and soap. Not sure if engagement is a precursor to quality service. Even the studies today admit they are correlated but necessarily causal.

      And you ask the same question – should 100% engagement be a goal? Is it even a realistic one? Even possible? That’s my quandry.

  7. Greg Harris says:

    The idea that only 40% of the world’s workforce is engage-able is as ludicrous as it is depressing. Proactively architecting culture is hard work. But degree of difficulty should never reduce us to organizational fatalism.

    It’s true that companies with >80% engaged employees are in the minority. Even if only 3% of workplaces are highly engaged, it’s still a worthy pursuit. Should we tell entry level employees NOT to aspire to a six figure salary because only 3% of American workers attain it? Or should we tell our high school-age children NOT to play sports because only 3% will go on to play in college?

    Becoming an “outlier” is a worthy pursuit.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Greg – you know I want the highest number possible. You also know that not everyone can earn 6 figures. You wouldn’t tell someone who has zero chance either due to education, training or other skill deficit that they should pursue that goal. You’d adjust accordingly – set expectations.

      And I have had the conversation with kids who play sports about setting realistic and reasonable goals related to their athletic dreams – and in most cases – the answer isn’t to stop playing but adjust the reason for playing.

      Neither here nor there – but the question is this when it comes to engagement…

      At what point does the juice not justify the squeeze? Is that 40% or 60% or what? And if I could get it to one of those numbers would the return be worth it?

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