Is There a Magic Number for Employee Engagement?

Employees who are engaged in their work and committed to their organizations give companies competitive advantages, including higher productivity, lower employee turnover, and increased customer loyalty.  The greater an employee’s engagement, the more likely they are to exert discretionary effort and deliver excellent on-the-job performance. Employers typically assess their employees’ engagement levels with company-wide attitude or opinion surveys, and technology is driving an increase in pulse surveys and other methods of frequent feedback. Another method touted for its simplicity is the eNPS, or Employee Net Promoter Score.

Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) is a measure of how likely your staff members are to recommend your company as a place to work. It asks employees how likely they are to “promote” you on a scale from 1 to 10 by asking a simple question:  “On a scale of zero to ten, how likely is it you would recommend this company as a place to work?” 

Respondents are sorted into three categories:

  • Promoters (those that answered 9-10) are the most loyal segment who will enthusiastically recommend employment at a company.
  • Passives (those that answered 7-8) are those that are not necessarily negative, but are also not entirely loyal.
  • Detractors (those that answered 0-6) are those that are not likely to recommend employment at the company, and it’s important to get to the bottom of why. 

The “magic number”  is calculated as the percentage of promoters minus the percentage of detractors. The eNPS can be as low as −10 (everybody is a detractor) or as high as +10 (everybody is a promoter). An eNPS that is positive (i.e., higher than zero) is considered good, and an NPS of +5 is excellent.

The idea may be familiar to customer centric organizations that use the Net Promoter® Score, a concept pioneered by Fred Reichheld and Rob Markey in their book The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).  It is designed as a way to measure customer loyalty by organizing customers into promoters, passives, and detractors with the question “How likely are you to recommend this company to a friend or relative?”

Net Promoter® practitioners have developed an approach to employee engagement based on the Net Promoter System® itself. They systematically search out those forms of employee engagement that have the biggest potential impact on customer loyalty. They identify and strive to improve workplace characteristics that support high customer loyalty. To reinforce the cultural support provided by the Net Promoter System, they align their approach to collecting and acting on employee feedback with their approach to collecting and acting on customer feedback. They explicitly tie together their customer system and their employee Net Promoter System.

Some of the companies using eNPS include AT&T, Progressive Insurance, and Apple, who coined the term “Net Promoter for People.” Franklin Covey Co., a performance improvement company based in Salt Lake City, gives Net Promoter surveys to employees and clients. Other advocates include Edmunds.com Inc., an online provider of automotive information; the national health and wellness company Concentra; Intuit,  and Cintas.

Some characteristics for the employee Net Promoter System are the same as those traditional employee engagement surveys.  For example, anonymity is critical.  Most companies use a third-party vendor to administer the survey to assure employees that the results are confidential and anonymous.  Demographic questions allow segmentation of responses when looking for patterns and trends isolated to certain areas and categories of employees. To avoid manipulation, don’t tie scores to pay or other rewards. As with all surveys, follow up and responding to results is key.

Other factors align with the customer Net Promoter System:  organizations conduct employee Net Promoter surveys more frequently:  monthly, or quarterly instead of annually.  Correlation of customer Net Promoter System scores with employee Net Promoter System scores is also important.

Brevity is part of eNPS’s appeal,  since it yields a simple, standardized measure. Other advantages include:

  • The survey can be presented to stakeholders without too much introduction.
  • It is meant to be part an ongoing operating system that can support coaching, action and continuous improvement
  • Emphasis is placed on sharing (disguised) feedback as quickly and as fully as possible with supervisors and leaders. This speed of action at the individual, team, function and enterprise levels, with rapid feedback on what’s working and what’s not working.

However, the employee Net Promoter System does have its detractors. Some of the issues are:

  • It’s only really meaningful when compared to a previous score or to another organization’s results. On its own, it can’t tell you much. If you want to dive deeper, you’ll need to use a range of other methods.
  • Promoters recommend you as a place to work, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily meaningfully engaged in their jobs.
  • Translating complex human experiences into numbers is something to be approached with caution.

eNPS is an emerging science. The simplicity of a single metric to measure employee engagement certainly has its appeal. However,  as with other engagement measurement surveys, the score doesn’t provide one right or best way to stimulate engagement in your workforce. Different HR practices, including job design, recruitment, selection, training, compensation, and performance management can enhance employee  engagement, and provide a more positive answer to the question “On a scale of zero to ten, how likely is it you would recommend this company as a place to work?”