The listening employer

Despite a turbulent year, RBS's employee engagement has held up due to the huge commitment it places in listening to its staff. Its work has earned it this year's Top Employer Award for Employee Engagement.

Banking has been through a few tough years and RBS has faced its share of challenges. For some organisations the result might be internal tension and a falling sense of morale, but RBS' move to redouble its work on employee engagement appears to have paid off. “It’s been a huge talking point that over the last year our employee engagement has held up,” says Lynne Burns, HR Director, Talent. “There is a huge sense of pride in that and our leaders really want to understand what has kept our employees going through such challenging times.”

All staff worldwide were invited to participate in RBS’ annual Employee Opinion Survey. Over 80% (99,000 staff) responded, and the company’s commitment to its employee listening strategy in hard times is a key reason why it was voted this year’s Top Employer for Employee Engagement.


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Burns says the reason the survey gets such a good response is because staff feel they are listened to and that what they say will be acted upon. Recently, for instance, the company has added more of a free text facility for staff to give their views on things they would like to change.

Line managers with 10 or more staff in their team get individual feedback, which is timed for just before their end of year planning. The feedback in turn leads to the development of an action plan.

Burns says senior leaders’ commitment to employee engagement, particularly the commitment of CEO Stephen Hester, is vital and that it is just as much part of the organisation's business goals as meeting financial targets. “We could not run the surveys that we do without commitment from senior leaders. The value would dissipate as people would see that their views were not taken seriously,” says Burns.


The Opinion Survey has been running for over 10 years and was launched at another potentially difficult time for the bank, just as it was going through the purchase of Natwest. “It gave us a sense of a baseline before the merger,” says Burns. “It was the most useful tool we had to gauge how employees on both sides were feeling at the time and over the years it has become a bedrock of our people strategy.”

Over time the survey has been broadened and response rates have risen from 68% in the first year to the current rate of over 80% as staff feel more confident in responding. The survey is just one of many that HR runs to track employees at all points in their life cycle within the company. For instance, there is a joiner survey which looks at employees’ experiences of the recruitment process and up to six months after joining.

Burns says this has fed into its induction programme. There is also a leavers survey to find out why employees have left and if there is anything the company could have done to prevent them leaving. And there is a 360 degree leadership survey which covers 4,500 managers.

Throughout the year there are also regular pulse surveys, mini versions of the opinion survey, which allow the company to be more responsive if there has been a big change, such as the recent change of a leader.

Deeper knowledge

The Employee Opinion Survey, which is published in 17 different languages, is reviewed annually and externally benchmarked so it can be measured against RBS' competitors. It has been deepened over the years allowing HR staff to view the results through a variety of different lenses, including location and gender.

Of the 99,000 employees across the globe who responded this year over 53,000 were women. Interestingly, employee engagement among women is up to 6% more favourable than men’s across the survey questions. Part of the reason is down to flexible working. Staff who work flexibly, and particularly women who work part time, have the highest levels of employee engagement across the organisation. Men who work part time have similar employee engagement levels to women, but there are significantly fewer of them. “It shows that flexible working has a really positive effect on employee engagement. It is very much valued,” says Burns.

The company can also use the Employee Opinion survey to look at whether there is a crossover between higher engagement scores and performance and that seems to be borne out by the results. For instance, sales staff who have a higher engagement score also have a higher customer performance profile. “It’s a win win,” says Burns.

Greig Aitken, Group Head, People Strategy & Insight, and the person responsible for the Employee Opinion Survey, says attitudes to flexible working are changing with the “Internet generation” looking for more flexibility.

Role models

Aitken and Burns agree that role models are important for normalising flexible working and the company promotes senior role models, including senior part-time women, to show other staff that it is possible to rise up the career ladder while working flexibly. RBS’ Focused Women’s Network was set up in 2010 to help women network and progress their careers and is another way that the company promotes employee engagement.

It is run by employees and sets its own agenda. The network has grown rapidly in the last year, mainly due to activism among women working in RBS branches in India, and now has 6,000 members. HR provides “back office support” and senior leaders actively sponsor its events, but they are keen not to step on the toes of those who run the network. “For us the networks are a source of information on what employees think and we do not want to interfere with that,” says Burns. This year for the first time all the employee networks have just had a meeting with board members to talk about the issues they see as important.

Similarly, the company encourages staff to do community work, which also boosts employee engagement, but does not like to dictate what that community work should be. “We want it to happen organically and staff working in a particular community are best placed to know what the main issues are. It allows people to give back to the local community in a way that seems authentic,” says Burns.

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