The Danger Lurking Behind External Benchmarks

When we kick off discussions about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) surveys, clients often say benchmarks are a requirement. When probed, they explain how “leadership will not take the results seriously without benchmarks.” They are referring to external benchmarks (also known as ‘norms’), which are used to compare their survey results to those of other organizations, usually those within your industry or geography.

Concerns arise when we share that The Kaleidoscope Group does not use external benchmark comparisons in DEI survey data interpretation. The validity of the survey might come into question (don’t worry, it’s been scientifically validated). Some may even begin to doubt our expertise, asking how many surveys we have conducted (don’t worry, it’s been in the hundreds over the past 20 years).

We often hear “it’s our standard practice to benchmark against our competition.” Or “how will I know if 62-percent favorability is good or bad without benchmark comparisons?” Ultimately, their response is more of a reaction to challenging the status quo and, of course, the need for assurance that we will accurately interpret their survey data.

Without question, the stakes are high for organizations that are conducting a DEI survey. The findings will be used to drive DEI strategy and investments in their organization, and poor survey data interpretation may result in under-funding or misguided DEI programs. Further, DEI surveys are relatively new, and most of our clients have never conducted one before – increasing the need to “get it right the first time.”

However, most have conducted an employee engagement survey in the past and thus are likely to use those experiences as their point of reference. And it’s rare, if not impossible, to find engagement survey results presented without external benchmarks. Hence, it stands to reason that clients may anticipate these types of benchmarks are also standard for other types of employee surveys.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, external benchmarks have face validity with leadership. Presenting survey data with them is a sure way to gain buy-in from critical decision-makers. Further, organizations strive to outperform their competitors and the need to do so is even more relevant in today’s unsteady environment. As such, external benchmark comparisons make sense for leadership to gain a competitive advantage. We appreciate this context. Who would not seek to gain instant credibility by presenting data findings in an easily understood and accepted way to leaders, who hold the keys to the resources necessary to elicit change?

For all these reasons, external benchmarks have understandably become the norm (pardon the pun) in employee survey data interpretation. And yet have they served their purpose to provide a reliable point of reference for employee engagement surveys, supporting the development of a competitive advantage, and prompting leaders to act?

The majority of US-based organizations conduct annual employee engagement or experience surveys. It’s estimated that American companies spend $100 billion annually on employee engagement. Yet despite the investment to gain access to recent data, with analysis that includes external benchmark comparisons to provide perspective and edge, the needle hasn’t moved much for engagement in the past nearly 20 years. And with droves of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs as we move through the Great Resignation, with many citing reasons directly correlated to topics measured in these annual surveys, it is safe to presume employee engagement is not in a good place. And the common survey practices currently used to measure and track employee engagement are not providing the necessary perspective to support leaders in making critical decisions to achieve the desired outcomes with their employees.

In this vein, it is also reasonable to suggest that approaching your DEI survey in the same way you would employee engagement may inhibit the relevant and reliable insight needed to support organizational change through DEI actions.

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