A note from the author:

When I first wrote the blog post below back in early March, the U.S. (where I am based) was not yet in the throes of our struggle with the spread of COVID-19. Since then, organizations around the world have had to make difficult decisions, many of which have impacted employees in large and unexpected ways.

Office workers have been sent to work from their homes, healthcare workers find themselves in often unpredictable situations, and all categories of essential workers continue to show up to work despite risks to their own health and safety. As I reflected on the relevance of this blog post in this new world of work, it occurred to me that, despite this moment being unprecedented in so many ways, the message of comparison remains the same.

At the risk of spoiling the key takeaway—comparing yourself to other organizations (at any moment, not just now) is a natural instinct, but is notably less valuable and important than looking within. Intentions, goals, and cultures are unique in ways that mean the “profile” of employee engagement looks different at every organization, even within the same industry or region. The best comparisons come in the form of self-reflections: What parts of our workforce are struggling most? How did we do yesterday? How are we doing today? How would we like to do tomorrow? We should aim to improve regardless of whether we are above, below, or equal to any of our peers or competitors.

Progress is personal, so let’s use this moment to make sure we’re making the comparisons that help our own organizations become the best versions of themselves.


It’s safe to say we all have an instinct to compare ourselves to one another. We’re hardwired to look for social comparisons, and that impulse has grown only stronger with social media as part of our lives. We make choices every day about who or what we compare ourselves to, and some of those comparisons have more to teach us than others. 

Since organizations are made up of people, they are no different. But organizational success is multifaceted, requiring careful thought about how we gauge it. As for employee engagement data, how do organizational leaders know which comparisons to make and when? Making the right judgments at the right moments in your organization’s growth can help identify key strengths and opportunities that drive a happier and more successful workplace.

What comparisons could we make?

Most organizations stick to three common types of comparisons, each revealing something unique about their current state: internal, historical, and external.

Internal comparison is when an organization compares some part of itself to the whole. For example, how does our Marketing team’s employee engagement score on communication compare to the broader company communication average? Using internal comparison, an organization can see whether its various teams are experiencing the workplace differently. If our Marketing team’s employee engagement score is below the company score, we know we have work to do to improve their experience. Internal comparison empowers us to speak transparently with the teams that have room to improve. It also helps us own the steps we’re going to take to address the gap, while celebrating and sharing best practices of high-scoring teams.

Historical comparison is when an organization (or some part of it) compares its current state to its former state. Perhaps a company conducted an employee engagement survey in two consecutive quarters, and found in the second quarter that the Marketing team’s employee engagement score increased from the first quarter. This is a win that both the team and organization can recognize and celebrate. In this example, a quarterly employee engagement survey helped the organization understand the score changes in a more “real-time” perspective.

If this organization had been monitoring its scores only annually, its teams would have to wait to hear about successes, delaying the positive benefits of communicating this increase. Also, if new problems on the team arose during the course of the year, there would be no opportunity to act until they did another historical comparison one year later. Frequent historical comparison is key to understanding the direction you’re heading in—and course correcting when it’s the wrong direction.

External comparison is when an organization compares itself to some external group of organizations. One type of external comparison is an industry benchmark—when a manufacturing company, for example, compares its own scores to the average score of other manufacturing companies. External benchmarks can also be specific to job function, public/private company status, country, and even “global” or all-inclusive benchmarks (which include all organizations in a particular data set). The prevailing belief is that external benchmarks give organizations a more accurate view of where they stand relative to others. However Glint’s research has proven that after an external comparison is first made, subsequent external comparisons provide less new information than internal or historical comparisons.

So the question remains: When should we make these comparisons?

What comparisons should we make (and when)?

The most important consideration when selecting a comparison is the organization’s overall employee engagement measurement strategy. Is this your first engagement survey? Have you run the same survey before? How long ago?

If this is the first time you’re running an employee engagement survey, and you have no internal historical data for comparison, the value of an external benchmark is highest. Comparing your first engagement survey to an external benchmark allows you a first view into “where you stand” relative to peer organizations. While it can be tempting to find the “perfect” external comparison, Glint’s research has found that there is more variation within comparison groups than between them.

Take industry for example: there are far fewer differences between employee experience in different industries than one might think. Instead, the greatest differences in experience are influenced more by choices each organization makes about their workforce rather than characteristics of their industry. It’s the organization (not the industry) that builds a supportive, balanced, safe workplace for employees, regardless of the nature of their work. So the manufacturing company in our previous example can likely learn more about its own choices by comparing to all other organizations in a data set rather than just other manufacturing companies.

This is why, whenever possible, Glint encourages use of a global comparison group for comparing externally at the full-company level (external comparisons are generally not valuable for team-level comparisons). It helps an organization compare itself against all organizations rather than a small subset. For these reasons, in my own work generating benchmarks in the HR space, I have found that external comparisons are rarely useful when checked more than once per year.

Organizations that have already used an external benchmark will find greater value in monitoring internal and historical comparisons on an ongoing basis. With internal and historical comparisons, they can drill into parts of their organization that are struggling, better target their action efforts, and ultimately see incremental improvements. Teams feel heard in the context of the broader organization, and everyone will see greater accountability for improvement. (Managers can’t hide if their team is below the organizational average.)

Organizations that turn to internal and historical comparisons on every survey they run will feel more plugged into the changes happening. This remains especially true for leaders and managers below the CEO that are reviewing their respective team results—internal comparisons allow for teams to understand how they’re feeling and operating compared with other teams that experience the same work environment and organizational culture. As a result, internal comparisons drive more relevant action at all levels of the organization than external comparisons would.

Learn more about Glint’s People Success platform here.