Improving Organizational Success in Tough Economic Times

National benchmarking project helps organizations measure employee engagement

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Both public and private agencies are feeling economic challenges in the decreasing availability of public dollars to fund services. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the three-year decrease in funds for fiscal years 2009, 2010, and 2011 totals more than $425 billion, and 2012 will bring yet another decrease in funding. At the same time budgets are dwindling, public agencies serving children and families are being challenged to improve outcomes of safety, permanency, and well-being in response to the federal Adoptions and Safe Families Act (ASFA). The ASFA set benchmarked outcomes for child welfare. In the first cycle of state reviews completed in 2004, no state was in substantial compliance with meeting federal benchmarks. All states prepared, submitted, and were required to successfully complete their Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).

A review by the Children’s Bureau of the first cycle of PIPs found the states focused on: improving the accuracy of data in the state data system (25 states); revising policies (52 states); implementing new practices at the line staff level (52 states); implementing the concept of quality improvement to monitor performance (45 states); and retraining/revised training of workers (38 states). In the first two years of the second cycle, 32 states were again reviewed and substantial compliance was still not achieved.

In this same period, the field continued to struggle with the ongoing issue of public child welfare staff turnover. The National Resource Center for Family Centered Practice and Permanency Planning estimates staff turnover in child welfare (public and private) to be 30–40% annually nationwide; the average length of employment is less than two years. Further, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates the cost of public child welfare turnover at one-third of the worker’s annual salary, and that it takes six months for a replacement worker to work at full capacity.

Private providers of services to the public sector are faced with two increasing challenges: (1) not getting paid by the public sector for the cost of providing contracted services and (2) constantly changing recordkeeping, reporting, and operating procedures. Like the public sector, the nonprofit sector also has the same challenge recruiting and retaining qualified staff. Over the past few years, nonprofits have asked staff to continue to do more.

If so many organizations want to improve their own success and the success of the children and families they serve, why have policies, procedures, documentation, and compliance oversight failed to accomplish that success? Workforce studies that have been done over the past 30 years on improving organizational success provide some answers. Frequently, human service organizations:

  • have outcomes “owned” by the organization rather than by specific staff, resulting in an unclear definition of success for frontline staff;
  • use a top-down directive model rather than positively engaging staff;
  • micromanage staff rather than empower them;
  • teach supervisors how to control and discipline staff rather than how to supervise them; and
  • give everyone the same cost-of-living or annual raises rather than rewarding staff based on their successes.

In addition to the errors above, perhaps the most crucial barrier to organizational success crosses all of these areas: how organizations positively engage employees.

Engaging Employees

With more than 20 years of research, Towers Perrin Global has found that highly engaged workers deliver better performance, resulting in better organizational performance and increased staff retention. The company’s 2007–2008 workforce study surveyed 90,000 full-time employees in 18 countries. This and other studies show that there is a direct and significant relationship between how engaged employees are and how well the organization performs in areas including staff retention, customer satisfaction, team performance, worker safety, productivity, financial performance, and improved outcomes.

Engaged employees care about the future of the agency and are committed—both emotionally and intellectually—to accomplishing the work, mission, and vision of the agency. Improving employee engagement directly impacts measurable business outcomes because employees who are committed to success, emotionally attached, and socially involved with their organizations are more productive at work, take fewer sick days, promote the business to others, and show their satisfaction to customers. In short, engaged employees are the best employees. However, national estimates say that four out of five workers are not fully engaged in helping their organizations succeed. A 2004 Gallup Management Journal Employee Engagement Index puts the current percentage of truly “engaged” employees at 29%. A slim majority, 54%, falls into the “not engaged” category, while 17% of employees are “actively disengaged.” Employees with the highest level of commitment perform 20% better and are 87% less likely to leave the agency.

As Mark Murphy explains in his book, Hundred Percenters, the world’s top performing organizations understand that employee engagement is the force that drives performance outcomes. Employee engagement is more than a human resources initiative; it is a strategic foundation for the way sucessful organizations do business. An organization’s leadership must understand what behaviors and organizational processes are necessary to engage employees.

National Benchmarking Project

The first step toward improving employee engagement is assessing how engaged an organization’s employees currently are. Last year, CWLA entered into a partnership with the University of Texas at Austin Institute for Organizational Excellence (IOE) to access data from their 30 years of employee engagement surveys in both the public and private sectors. Using this information, CWLA and the Council on Accreditation (COA) are launching a national benchmarking project—the first-ever effort to provide a national comparison of employee engagement for child- and family-serving agencies.

Benchmarking gives each agency the chance to compare its individual results to the composite results for all participating child- and family-serving agencies. The project will create a public sector composite and a private sector composite, allowing for comparison to a nationwide pool of peers who perform similar services: child protective services and investigation, family preservation, foster care, adoption, group home or residential care, and so on. The Kansas Children’s Service League (KCSL) participated in the pilot for the national benchmarking project. “It is so helpful to finally be able to see how our organization compares with others,” says Trudy Racine, Vice President of Operations at KCSL. “We have done internal surveys for years and the results have been useful, but there was always the nagging uncertainty about whether our results were better or worse than we should hope for. Having benchmarking comparisons will allow us to identify the areas where we need to focus for continued improvement.”

From 30 years of work on employee engagement, the IOE has developed a survey with five dimensions—work, information, accommodations, personnel, and organization—and multiple components within each. Regardless of the services an organization provides, these are the dimensions that an agency’s leadership can impact to improve organizational excellence and, accordingly, improve results for clients.

Each participating agency in the national benchmarking project gets its results reported as a whole. Additionally, scores are broken down in three ways: by category of employee (i.e., direct services line staff, supervisors/managers, nonservice staff, and senior management); by service areas and location; and by line and supervisory staff for each service.

Noel Landuyt, IOE’s director and the manager of the survey process, explains that the survey can be customized to include results for additional services an agency provides. “While we include child- and family-serving agencies that provide a core child welfare function, participating agencies can add any other services they provide so they can have results for all services,” he says. “For example, one participating agency offers senior services, senior day care, meals on wheels, and senior transportation in addition to their child and family services. That agency was able to get a report for these services also.”

Responses and Results

In the fall of 2010, CWLA piloted an employee engagement survey with 13 private member agencies and a cohort of 13 Ohio counties. “Our agency is always interested in continuous quality improvement, and ‘getting better and better at getting better and better,’” explains Sue Nowlan, former Program Manager and Vice President in Lorain County, Ohio. “We understand that outcomes are affected by employee engagement, so we jumped at the chance to discover our staff’s perceptions, and how that compares with similar agencies.”

Motivations at private agencies were similar. “Gateway wanted to gauge the level of employee motivation, connection, and satisfaction with their position and with the agency,” Jim Loop, President and CEO at Gateway, says. “By participating in this process, Gateway also wanted to access the relationship between supervisor/manager and employees. We plan to share the information with staff at all levels, seeking their input on how to implement ideas and suggestions to increase employee engagement.”

In general, the results of the pilot showed that senior staff believe their employees are more engaged than they actually are. Landuyt reports on other findings from the pilot group. “Private organizations scored more positively than public on all areas except on the areas of employee development,” Landuyt says. “When private and public are compared, private scored much higher on their assessment of upper management as compared to the public set. This is probably a result of public organizations being more bureaucratic, larger, more flexible, and less rule-driven. Perceptions of pay and benefits between the two groups was relatively no different. The CWLA groups scored higher than our benchmark data in our health and human service category.”

Landuyt says all organizations show differences among employees who intend to stay in their current positions and those who intend to leave. In the surveys of the pilot group, public and private agencies shared three factors that influenced whether employees intended to stay or leave. These items were:

  1. “I feel my efforts count,”
  2. “My work atmosphere encourages open and honest communication,” and
  3. “I believe I have a career with this organization.”

Landuyt says these items can have a very big effect on employee engagement. “The first item, ‘I feel my efforts count,’ is an important engagement item. People want to feel as though they matter to the organization and [are] a valued part of a team. When they are marginalized and not utilized to their highest potential, they consider leaving,” he explains. “The second item speaks to the importance of open and honest communication. No one likes situations where they feel as though they cannot trust those they work with or that information is withheld which could potentially allow them to do a better job. Lastly, the sense of career orientation is critical. Dead-end jobs do not attract valuable employees.”

After the Assessment

As Loop at Gateway noted, a critical step after the benchmarking survey is sharing the results with staff from all levels of the organization and encouraging their ideas and opinions on how to improve employee engagement. In some cases, the benchmarking process may reveal a need to improve the quality of supervision. In fact, the key to employee retention, engagement, and success is the employee’s immediate supervisor. In the child welfare field, it is often assumed that a good line worker makes for a good supervisor of line staff. The skill set for being a successful supervisor, however, is a different skill set from that of the person delivering direct services. Studies clearly show that organizations need to invest in teaching supervisors a practice model of supervision so they can be held accountable for using that model and, therefore, achieve organizational success. As explained in a Harvard Business Press article, “Hiring Smart for Competitive Advantage,” “the primary reason people leave their jobs is because of their relationship with their supervisor.”

Another frequent area in need of improvement is the level of an agency’s support of a multigenerational workforce. As Baby Boomers leave senior positions and more and more of the workforce is populated by Generation Y, traditional practices may need to evolve. Leaders need to focus time and resources to building an organization where Generation Y staff want to work. As the economy improves, staff will begin to look for more positive work environments. Studies tell us money is not the determining factor in retention—it is how we treat our staff.

The changes suggested here are not unknown—the behavioral practices are based in the workforce studies done among public and nonprofit organizations. But assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a specific organization can be a valuable tool in achieving success in any economy. CWLA plans to offer CWLA members, COA-accredited agencies, and other child- and family-serving agencies the opportunity to participate in the employee engagement survey. The next cycle will occur in the spring of 2012.

Jeffrey Bormaster LCSW is Senior Director of Special Projects and Director of the Employee Engagement Benchmark Study at CWLA.

Emily Shenk contributed to this article.

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