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The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice

Co-Editors: Kimberly Adams, Lead Path Solutions, LLC; Stephanie Zajac, UT MD Anderson Cancer Center; and Tara Myers, American Nurses Credentialing Center


“The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research as well as learn about cutting-edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, and so forth that may benefit from additional research. In this issue, Will Shepherd describes Wendy’s evidence-based employee engagement program and how employee engagement surveys can be used to provide managers with a variety of resources to improve the engagement of employees and reduce turnover.

The “Voice of Wendy’s” Program: Human Resource Management Impact Award Winner

Will Shepherd
Director—Talent & Organizational Effectiveness

Wendy’s was pleased to be honored by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), along with their foundations, as one of the winners for the 2019–2020 Human Resource Management (HRM) Impact Award. This award recognizes organizations with outstanding evidence-based HR management practices. Wendy’s was recognized for its Voice of Wendy’s (VOW) program.

Wendy’s was founded in 1969 by Dave Thomas in Columbus, Ohio. Dave built his business on the premise, “Quality Is Our Recipe®,” which remains the guidepost of the Wendy’s system. Wendy’s is best known for its made-to-order square hamburgers; using fresh, never frozen beef; freshly prepared salads with hand-chopped lettuce; and other signature items like chili, baked potatoes, and the Frosty® dessert. The Wendy’s Company is committed to doing the right thing and making a positive difference in the lives of others. This is most visible through the company’s support of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption® and its signature Wendy’s Wonderful Kids® program, which seeks to find every child in the North American foster care system a loving, forever home.

Because front-line quick service restaurant jobs are so fast paced and challenging, it is important for Wendy’s to have an ongoing program to measure employee attitudes to ensure we have an engaged workforce that will “Delight Every Customer.” As part of its strategic planning process, the Wendy’s human resources organization committed to building a new program to gain greater insight into employee engagement. The new program was called the “Voice of Wendy’s” (or VOW for short). The VOW program was a new core required program for company-owned restaurants. Wendy’s is a franchisor that has relationships with independent franchisees that operate Wendy’s restaurants. Franchisees—as independent organizations responsible for their own employment practices—could choose to opt in or opt out of the VOW program.

Wendy’s wanted to take a data-driven approach to understanding and optimizing its service-profit chain by measuring employee engagement and linking it to turnover and organizational performance. We wanted to know the answers to questions such as

  • What are the key drivers of employee engagement at Wendy’s?
  • What is the relationship between employee engagement and restaurant performance?
  • What are the keys to successful onboarding to ensure new hires are engaged and productive?
  • What is the impact of employee turnover, and how can we reduce it?

The VOW employee engagement program was implemented in 2016, and since then, over 250,000 respondents, 5,000 restaurants, and 150 franchise organizations have participated. Each restaurant receives a customized report with item-level results and two areas of focus for action planning. The two areas of focus are generated based on the restaurant’s aggregate response pattern to the items on the survey that were determined through analytics to be key drivers of employee engagement. The reports also contained comparative norms to the local division as well as national quick service restaurant norms.  The survey asks respondents to provide ratings in multiple content areas, including employee engagement, job characteristics, the work environment, and Wendy’s organizational values. The survey also has a series of questions related to Wendy’s Employment Value Proposition. The survey is completed by both restaurant employees and people who work in roles supporting the restaurants.

In addition, to gain further insight beyond multiple-choice ratings, respondents are prompted to provide follow-up comments on certain multiple-choice questions. For example, one such item was “I find that my work is rewarding.” According to a relative-weights analysis, this item was one of the highest predictors of overall employee engagement. To gain more insight into this finding, we incorporated a follow-up open-text item asking respondents to explain what made their work rewarding (if they indicated it was) or conversely what would make work rewarding (if they indicated it was not). We used text analytics to detect themes in the responses. We found that employees who feel their work is rewarding say they find their jobs are rewarding because (a) they get to help customers, (b) they enjoy their interactions with coworkers, and (c) they get recognition from management. Employees who do not feel their work is rewarding say to make it rewarding they need (a) more pay and (b) more benefits. This insight helped reinforce the importance and financial impact of employee recognition by supervisors.

The survey also included four questions for new hires who had been employed 90 days or less. New hires were asked about their overall satisfaction with the hiring process, whether they felt welcomed by the manager and coworkers, whether the job duties matched what was described during the interview, and whether the manager invested time in building a relationship with them. Over time, these questions were expanded and spun off into a new hire onboarding survey that was administered to every new hire 2 weeks after hire. We found that restaurants with employees who reported higher onboarding survey satisfaction had lower turnover, higher employee engagement scores, and higher overall customer satisfaction.

Conducting an employee engagement survey has little impact unless there is subsequent follow through by the managers. We focused heavily on action planning. We provided a variety of resources for managers to utilize as part of action planning, including sample discussion guides, action planning templates, and an online training video on how to interpret and take action on VOW results. In year 2 of the survey program, we began to ask three questions of the employees: Did your manager share the VOW results? Did your manager take any initial action to improve based on the results? Have there been any subsequent check-in conversations over time on progress against the VOW results? We found that managers whose employees rated them highest on these three items had dramatic gains of 18% from year 1 to year 2 on employee engagement. However, failure by the managers to follow through on VOW in year 1 resulted in significant declines in engagement in year 2. Managers who received the lowest employee ratings on the three items saw employee engagement declines of 21%.

As the VOW program was launched, we began a series of predictive linkage studies connecting employee engagement to the customer satisfaction data. We began to track the customer satisfaction results of restaurants with high engagement versus low engagement. More highly engaged restaurants had higher customer satisfaction results in the subsequent months on dimensions such as taste, friendliness, speed, accuracy, and cleanliness. We were able to replicate these longitudinal results over a 2-year period. In addition to conducting linkage studies related to customer satisfaction, we also examined restaurant performance. We found that highly engaged restaurants had subsequent superior operational results, including pick-up window speed, sales, and transaction counts. Customers also reported a higher likelihood to return and fewer problems during their visits. Company restaurants with high employee engagement had 14% lower turnover than low-engagement restaurants.

One aspect of the VOW program is that we focus on “Top Box” percentages (the percent of employees who select the “strongly agree” option on the 1–5 agreement scale). Traditionally, employee survey results have reported a combined percentage for the “agree” and “strongly agree” options. However, because our customer satisfaction data were reported as “Top Box” percentages, we decided to align with this reporting approach. We did this so there would be comparability and consistency when managers reviewed their customer satisfaction and employee engagement results. Our research supported that “Top Box” ratings are meaningfully different. For example, employees who respond “strongly agree” to engagement items are three times more likely to recommend Wendy’s as a great place to work than those who only respond “agree.”

As part of its commitment to evidence-based human resources practices, Wendy’s established a long-term research partnership with Rob Ployhart at the University of South Carolina to gain deeper insights into the VOW data. This research program is contributing to theory and the scholarly understanding of talent, turnover, and strategic business unit effectiveness. To date, the VOW program data has been used in the following presentations:

  • Kautz, J., Ployhart, R. E., Shepherd, W., & Hale, D. (2017). Employee emotional influences on the service-profit chain. Symposium presented at the annual conference of the Academy of Management, Atlanta, GA.
  • Ployhart, R. E. (2019). New insights and surprising findings on talent mobility. Invited presentation to chief HR officers at the Center for Executive Succession annual meeting, hosted by Blackstone, New York, NY.
  • Ployhart, R. E., Hendricks, J. L., & Shepherd, W. J. (2019). Complementarities between human capital resource flows and psychological resources. HR Divisional Paper session at the 79th Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Ployhart, R. E., Shepherd, W. J., & Hendricks, J. L. (2018). The impact of collective psychological resources on business unit sales. Symposium presented at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Chicago, IL.
  • Porr, W. B., Chambers, B., Kuyumcu, D., Shepherd, W. J., and Ployhart, R. E. (2019). Cultural fit: Are we just trying to predict engagement? Panel discussion at the 34th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, National Harbor, MD.
  • Shepherd, W. J. (2018, Cochair). The impact of talent on collective turnover, performance, and profit. Symposium presented at the 33 rd Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Chicago, IL.
  • Shepherd, W. J., Ployhart, R. E., & Kautz, J. (2018). Customer perceptions and employee attitudes as determinants of collective turnover. Poster presented at the 33 rd Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Chicago, IL.
  • Ward, W., Ployhart, R. E., & Shepherd, W. J. (2019). The impact of inclusion practices on generational cohort differences in engagement. Symposium presented at the 34th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, National Harbor, MD.

In addition to the previously mentioned conference presentations and journal submission, this work bridges the gap between practice and academia further by providing applied research experience for multiple doctoral students. This research is also influencing practice through education, development, and outreach. The models and frameworks developed in our research have become a central part of a HR Business Partner Executive Education program cotaught by Dr. Ployhart to a wide range of firms and HR managers; they are presented to CHROs and talent leads as part of the University of South Carolina Center for Executive Succession and Center for Human Resource Research, and they have been reported in practitioner-oriented outlets (e.g., Corporate Research Forum; Talent Quarterly).

We continue to evolve the VOW program. As we look ahead, we are increasing our focus on our new hire onboarding survey which contains overlapping items with the core VOW annual survey. This provides us continuous tracking of new hire employee engagement. We also look to expand the program internationally into the 20+ countries in which we operate. Finally, we continue to expand the scope of VOW content beyond job attitudes to include reactions and feedback about restaurant operations.

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