How does your company treat its employees? What is your firm’s employee experience?
You may not think about it often, but your employees do—every day. Driven by the desire to work where their values match company values, employees organically (even carefully once they spot a negative trend) monitor how leaders treat employees.
Specifically, are team members treated with respect and validation? Or with contempt and disdain?
Employees know the answer to that question. And they talk about their bosses and work in general. Constantly. They share with peers, partners, and friends exactly how they feel about work—and often with strangers on social media and websites like Glassdoor and Fishbowl—and about whether your work culture creates an inspiring, validating place to work.
The feedback can be less than complimentary and often presents brutally honest assessments of your company’s culture. Since employees increasingly leverage digital bullhorns to express their displeasure and disappointment, perhaps leaders should expect negative feedback.
After all, a 2023 study by The Muse found that two-thirds of employees consider their workplaces toxic.
If leaders, colleagues, and legacy systems treat employees with contempt and disdain—even once a week—employees will not consider your workplace a consistently healthy environment.
However, if leaders, colleagues, and systems sincerely and organically treat employees with respect and validation in every interaction, then employees will likely consider your workplace a positive, rewarding experience. They will not just be more inclined to stay; they will be far more motivated to invite friends and colleagues to join your company.
The key to achieving this in any organization is a winning employee experience strategy that energizes and inspires employees and keeps them engaged and committed to the vision.
An employee experience strategy is a collection of policies that companies can implement to improve employees’ perceptions of their roles and work environment. These policies improve the employee experience by addressing employee needs, helping them stay motivated and productive, and supporting their well-being.
In this article, we’ll explore the concept of employee experience and outline winning strategies that can help leaders ensure they are providing the support team members need for a positive employee experience.
What Is Employee Experience?
The focus on the employee experience has exploded in the post-pandemic world of work. To understand why, it would help to start with a shared understanding of what we consider “employee experience.”
However, as culture architects, we don’t use a one-size-fits-all definition of “employee experience.” Instead, we define employee experience only after discovering, using confidential and objective data collection processes (more on this later), how employees experience their workplace each day.
Perhaps more importantly, we learn how employees interpret their daily workplace experiences in their minds and hearts, independent of what their employer tells them they should experience based on intentions or public relations.
It is safe to say, though, that at the core of the employee experience is the quality of relationships an employee has with their boss and peers. Yes, other factors (personal and professional growth, the quality of an employee’s workplace support systems, etc.) also influence employee experience. Still, the quality of workplace relationships has the most powerful impact.
Simply put, as goes the personal relationship between boss and employee and employee to employee, so goes employee experience.
How Does Employee Experience Compare to Employee Engagement?
At this point, you may think, “Isn’t “employee experience” the same as “employee engagement?”
No, it’s not the same.
In part, because one employee might experience the same workplace and boss differently than another, the employee experience is a more complex topic. More importantly, managers can’t manipulate employee experience as easily as so-called employee engagement. Let’s quickly discuss why.
In the 1990s, employee satisfaction became a crucial focus point in the HR space. Specifically, people started discussing the importance of “employee engagement” and “company culture.”
As those conversations matured, it became increasingly clear that the effectiveness of the boss (and, ultimately, the quality of the company) correlated to higher employee satisfaction. Higher employee satisfaction meant more management merit badges, more milestones hit, and higher profits.
So, in short order, the mandate for leaders became simple: To ensure people were content and productive, increase employee engagement, and improve company culture.
As a result, companies needed a reliable way to measure employee engagement. In 1998, the Gallup organization formulated the “Q12” or twelve employee needs that form their now-standard engagement survey.
The twelve questions on the original engagement survey asked employees to rate statements like these:
- I know what is expected of me at work.
- At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
- In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
- At work, my opinions seem to count.
- I have a best friend at work.
The Q12 items have proven to be valid and reliable indicators of employee engagement. Gallup’s robust analysis confirmed that high scores on the Q12 lead to better performance, better customer loyalty, better talent retention, better well-being, and more.
There’s just one problem.
For the next three decades, organizations spent billions of dollars attempting to increase (read: manipulate) employee engagement. Despite that investment and focus over nearly 30 years, the percentage of highly engaged employees remains around 35%. Manipulation was never the answer; that needle hasn’t moved!
And today, most of our workplaces and company cultures still suck.
We now know that throwing money, training, tools, technology, and more at leaders throughout our workplaces doesn’t positively impact employee engagement. And we know it certainly doesn’t improve an employee’s workplace experience.
Before we get to HOW leaders can positively impact the employee experience of every team leader and team member, let’s get to the hard numbers; the undeniable proof of how a healthy employee experience benefits engagement, customer relationships, results, and profits.
Why Must Leaders Care About Employee Experience?
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported recently that the number of employees who voluntarily quit their jobs decreased from previous months. The Great Resignation may be behind us, but hiring is still challenging.
Case in point: In June 2020, there were five unemployed people per job opening. Today, that number has shrunk to one-half of a person for each job opening.
In our 30+ years of research and consulting experience, we’ve learned three nuggets of truth:
Nugget No. 1: If your workplace has a reputation for being toxic, you will continue to struggle to retain and attract talented, engaged team leaders and team members.
Nugget No. 2: Even if your overall company culture is healthy, when even ONE team leader or team member treats another person with contempt, your workplace is toxic to those who are the targets of that contempt AND to those who observe the disrespectful treatment of others.
Nugget No. 3: When your workplace starts consistently treating staff with respect and validation, you’ll enjoy significant benefits within 12 to 18 months, including:
- 40% gains in employee engagement
- 40% gains in customer service
- 40% gains in retention of talented staff
- 35% gains in results and profits
To realize these improvements in critical business metrics, you must formalize and socialize behavioral expectations for respectful and validating interactions in uncompromising terms. But you can’t stop publishing and announcing these expectations.
You must then align all plans, decisions, actions, and people to those expectations. Finally, as a business leader, you must serve as the chief role model for those expectations.
Where players refuse to demonstrate their defined respectful behaviors, you must coach and mentor them to alignment. If they are unable to align with your desired behaviors, you must lovingly set them free. Give them permission to experience another workplace by helping them out of your organization promptly, firmly, and kindly.
Setting behavioral expectations and then holding every person in the company accountable for meeting those expectations is the only way to ensure a healthy employee experience for every player in your organization, in every interaction, every day.
How To Evaluate the Quality of the Employee Experience in Your Workplace
To understand the quality of the employee experience in your work culture, you must create channels to gather honest employee feedback. Different channels might be more comfortable for different generations or different social styles; a variety of channels will help you understand a broad perspective.
For example, some of our clients regularly leverage these channels:
- Anonymous employee surveys
- Anonymous employee suggestion/concerns email inboxes
- Focus groups—live meetups on company time with outside facilitators
- Live interviews by external consultants
In our work, we’ve found the most effective and efficient ways to discover employees’ honest perceptions of how leaders treat them are 1) live interviews and 2) custom surveys designed to measure the quality and impact of your current company culture—the primary factor in a positive, mutually beneficial employee experience.
To begin this discovery process, start with live interviews. If you don’t have staff members with experience conducting those one-on-one interviews, or if employees don’t trust those people to be objective, engage experienced consultants to speak candidly with senior leaders, team leaders, and select front-line staff.
Those outsiders don’t have preconceived assumptions about the work culture or whether the employee experience is good or bad. That builds credibility and confidence in the eyes of team leaders and team members, especially when the interview report emphasizes what the consultants heard without attributing comments or issues to any one interviewee.
After all, employee input must be entirely anonymous. Otherwise, interviewees won’t be inspired to be open and honest when answering questions.
The second most beneficial way to learn employees’ honest perceptions is through custom culture surveys. Custom culture surveys enable personalization, asking questions unique to your company’s desired culture. Pre-made, off-the-shelf culture surveys don’t allow that personalization or customization.
Step One: Formalize Your Desired Culture (and Employee Experience)
You can’t build an appropriately personalized culture survey until after you’ve formalized three to five desired workplace values and defined those values with three to five observable, tangible, and measurable behaviors.
For example, suppose you decide that “integrity” is one of your core workplace values. In that case, you might include “I do what I say I will do” as one of three to five observable behaviors that provide clear direction on how you expect all team members to model that value.
When we help clients with their custom culture survey, we add this behavior to their survey by including a statement that says, “My direct supervisor does what she says she will do.”
Similarly, each of your custom culture survey questions will consist of statements derived directly from your company’s defined valued behaviors. For each valued behavior, survey respondents rate how well their direct supervisor models that specific behavior.
Throughout our surveys, we use a six-point scale (1 to 6) to indicate a respondent’s level of agreement with the leader’s demonstration of your valued behaviors. Within that six-point scale:
- A score of six (6; “strongly agree”) represents the best possible score.
- A five (5) illustrates the next best score and indicates “agreement.”
The following are, in varying degrees, less-desirable scores:
- A score of four (4) indicates “slight agreement” with the statement.
- A three (3) indicates “slight disagreement.”
- A two (2) indicates “disagreement.”
- A one (1) indicates “strong disagreement.”
By tallying employees’ responses for each statement, we build a profile for each leader that presents the ratings provided by their direct reports for each custom question. We present the results visually using a bar chart showing score ranges for each statement.
Here is an example of one client’s scorecard summary for their president. Please note that their company’s six values (shown across the bottom of the graph) incorporate fifteen uniquely defined valued behaviors.
In this example, the president’s direct and indirect reports’ ratings indicate he demonstrates the company’s formalized valued behaviors very well. The bar chart shows average scores above the desired 5.00 level on four of the six values—and he scored “just shy” of meeting the desired level in the other two values.
By comparison, here is a summary scoring graph from a different formal leader in the same organization. This person is a front-line supervisor rated by his direct reports.
As you can see, this leader’s average ratings indicate that his direct reports don’t feel he effectively models the desired and valued behaviors of the organization.
Additionally, his average ratings of 2.67 to 4.00 suggest this supervisor would benefit from prompt redirection (coaching and mentoring) to model the company’s valued behaviors more effectively and to more positively impact the employee experience among his team members.
Again, these samples are from a survey customized to this client’s unique desired company culture, which is the key driver of every employee’s experience in their workplace. You must customize your values and behaviors survey to match your desired culture and values precisely.
These customized surveys provide “undeniable data” for your leaders. Employees’ ratings on how well those leaders demonstrate your defined, measurable, valued behaviors let those leaders know exactly where they model desired behaviors and where they don’t.
Where leaders fall short of modeling your measurable, valued behaviors is where senior leaders must coach and mentor to alignment—or help those players out of your organization.
The Four Phases (and Timing) of an Effective Employee Experience Strategic Plan
Our research and experience have proven that a structured, disciplined approach to building an uncompromising work culture and a repeatable, scalable, and more rewarding employee experience leverages four phases that sequentially build confidence and momentum over a 12- to 18-month initiative:
Discovery (One to Two Months)
The center of the Discovery phase—live interviews with senior leaders, next-level leaders, and select team leads—usually takes about 30 days. When we work with clients, we allow another one to two weeks to craft an Interview Summary and Recommendations Report for the executive team.
Define (One to Two Months)
The Define phase starts with a two-day offsite facilitated session with senior leaders to begin defining your organization’s desired work culture.
Additional wordsmithing on a foundational document we refer to as an “Organizational Constitution” allows further refinement of several elements critical to company culture and the employee experience, including the company’s servant purpose, values, behaviors, strategies, and goals.
Align (Six to Twelve Months)
The Align phase takes roughly six months for formal leaders to prove they’re committed to the culture change by modeling desired and valued behaviors, celebrating aligned behaviors, etc.
Formal leaders living your valued behaviors build confidence in employees that this is real change, not just another change initiative driven by lip service and doomed for failure. The measurement segment, typically in the form of the culture surveys discussed earlier, begins about six months into the Align phase.
Refine (Three to Four Months… and Ongoing)
The Refine phase often overlaps the last few months of the Align phase and begins shortly after objective data is collected and analyzed in the measurement segment. Refinement requires leaders to hold themselves and others across the company accountable for modeling your valued behaviors.
Where those surveyed demonstrate desired behaviors, you must recognize and celebrate that alignment to culture. Where you observe a failure to align to desired behaviors by a leader or employee, you must deliberately engage, coach, and mentor people toward alignment.
If, over time, they prove unable to live the company’s valued behaviors and contribute to a positive employee experience—again—you must lovingly set them free.
Both in this article and in our best-selling book, Good Comes First, we’ve said it takes 12 to 18 months to change company culture and gain the traction required to create an enviable employee experience. And, in most companies, alignment, including quantitative (custom culture surveys) and qualitative (one-on-one interviews with key contributors), and refinement activities never end.
They can’t! Because it takes constant modeling, celebrating, measuring, coaching, and mentoring to ensure that everyone in your company consistently experiences a work environment where they feel valued—every day. The moment a leader loses focus on culture and employee experience is the moment team members start talking about their workplace frustrations, in person and online.
Don’t take shortcuts. Don’t make the mistake, for example, of simply “announcing” a culture change without a clear plan for implementing that change. Instead, formulate a plan centered around the four phases we’ve introduced in this article, then execute that plan and reinforce your valued behaviors every day.
You’ll soon create a workplace experience that employees appreciate so much that they not only stay… they invite top talent to help your company achieve all its business goals.