Carhartt: Crafting a Associate Experience That's Built to Last
Focusing on the Experience to Achieve Better Business Outcomes
When Carhartt partnered with Perceptyx in 2019, it was in the continuing pursuit of a goal established by founder Hamilton Carhartt in 1889.
“Hamilton Carhartt was a big proponent of worker’s rights,” said Scott Hicks, Senior Organizational Specialist for Carhartt. “For us today, that means our greatest assets are our associates. We’re an associate-centric company, which is what drives our motivation for doing surveys. We believe that taking care of our associates starts with listening and having two-way conversations. The end result is stronger business results.”
Carhartt initiated its survey program in 2016 with the goal of learning about its associates’ perceptions of the brand, the company, and its leaders. Hicks said, “We learned there was work to be done in the area of engagement. In particular, we wanted to take a hard look to see how we could improve leadership effectiveness and drive our mission forward.”
By 2019, the company had determined it wanted a more comprehensive listening strategy and decided to partner with Perceptyx to conduct surveys and collect feedback across the entire associate journey.
“One thing we learned,” said Hicks, “is that previously we were chasing an engagement score. We realized that was not a sustainable approach. We needed to go deeper. We realized we needed to ask a broader range of questions to analyze what’s driving engagement, so we wanted to get away from a single score and look at engagement as a broader index.
"Feedback is the important thing—a score is just a score. Our interest was in improving the overall experience, and to find those opportunities, we needed to dive deeper."
- Scott Hicks, Senior Organizational Development Specialist
A COVID-Sized Bump in the Road
Carhartt began its work with Perceptyx just as the company was launching its “Ways of the Carhartt Leader” leadership competencies, which are applicable to all associates. The model is founded on three truths: Lead Self, Lead Others, and Lead Business. It is supported with seven Carhartt-specific competencies that emphasize all associates—regardless of level—are leaders at Carhartt. Integral to the truths are commitments to openly communicate; provide, receive and respond to feedback; and to strive for continuous improvement.
The goal of improving leadership effectiveness was one of the primary reasons the company chose to partner with Perceptyx. Carhartt recognized the value of taking a broader look at the specific elements of the employee experience important to engagement, understanding that leadership was a key element of the experience.
To that end, Perceptyx began interviewing stakeholders and scoping questions for the initial census survey shortly after the partnership began, while Carhartt worked on integrating its existing data with the Perceptyx platform. The first survey was scheduled to be administered in June of 2020.
Then, the pandemic hit.
Shifting gears, Carhartt postponed the first survey until October 2020. While the pandemic proved disruptive to the survey schedule, it also offered an opportunity. By pushing back the date for the initial survey, the company was able to get feedback regarding employee perceptions of leadership performance and overall company communications through the pandemic.
According to Hicks, despite the delay in the rollout and the stresses of the pandemic, the survey was well-received by Carhartt associates. The participation rate was 84%—the highest rate the company has experienced. The associate response to the survey, the survey platform, and the ease of completing the survey were all positive.
“We delivered the survey in two ways,” said Hicks. “Computer users received an email with a unique link, while associates in retail stores and production facilities used tablets to complete the survey. They had a link to the survey and a unique pin code for access. The individual links and pin codes allowed us to link demographic data to survey results, which really helped zero in on associate perceptions about the experience throughout the company.”
In Spite of Adversity, Fostering Inclusion and Positive Results
Carhartt’s leadership understands diverse workplaces with inclusive environments foster innovation and generate community engagement, responsible business growth, and customer satisfaction. “The greatest thing we were able to do on a deeper level is connect our assumptions about the experience to actual data,” continued Hicks. “We have associates working in different ways, and their experiences are unique. We were able to validate the experiences of all of them, thanks to the ability to segment data.”
The approach is working. Hicks said Carhartt associates are connecting the surveys with the improvement initiatives the company is promoting and see the value in the program. Engagement is up by 25 points since the initial survey in 2016, and the results from the October 2020 survey indicated that it has reached its highest level yet—93%—even against the backdrop of the pandemic.
Since October 2020, when the company conducted its first survey in partnership with Perceptyx, Hicks said, “We’ve seen a focused and consistent response in action planning. We’ve been able to open up the survey dashboard to our leadership population which has allowed us to share more department-specific results than ever before. It’s an easy and meaningful process for them to dive into their own team’s responses.” As a result, action planning has become more decentralized, because leaders are able to own and take individual action at the team level.
The approach is paying dividends. The idea that associates are connecting survey feedback with the actions taken in response is not just wishful thinking. In addition to the improvements in engagement the company has realized, Carhartt experienced a record sales year in 2020, despite the pandemic. The work the company has done to improve the associate experience continues to have a positive impact on business outcomes.
Building on the Foundation of the Partnership
Carhartt has already realized big payoffs from its 2016 decision to start seeking associate feedback on a regular basis, but considers those benefits only the beginning.
This year, the company launched action to pursue one of the other important goals that led to the partnership with Perceptyx: collecting feedback across the entire associate journey. Carhartt introduced a new onboarding survey in 2021, the first in what will be a series of lifecycle surveys, intended to measure perceptions across a variety of moments that matter in the associate’s journey with the company. “An onboarding survey ensures we are hitting the mark with welcoming new hires who start their employment remotely or onsite so they feel the same sense of belonging and inclusion,” said Hicks.
The long-term plan is to link data from all lifecycle surveys to census and other survey data, to enable cross-survey analysis and predictive analytics. As a first step, the introduction of the onboarding survey will allow the company to start linking associate perceptions related to the onboarding process to perceptions at later points in the journey, and measure the impact of the onboarding experience on the overall associate experience.
"For Carhartt, putting diversity and inclusion into practice involves building deep connections with each individual associate, celebrating their differences, and encouraging them to bring fresh ideas to the table."
- Scott Hicks, Senior Organizational Development Specialist
Hicks highlighted the positive experience working with the Perceptyx platform, referring to the quality of the survey content, external benchmarks, ease of use, and experience for respondents, “but they’ve been great to work with from a project management and consultation standpoint as well. The customer service is fantastic. They are always supportive of helping us do what we want to do.” Hicks also notes that the comment analysis feature in itself has been very useful. His team can do more comprehensive searches of sentiment analysis, which has already served as a good high-level indicator for where associates are experiencing pain points across their journey.
Other benefits of the partnership include the new programs and leadership initiatives the company has begun developing in response to insights gained from their surveys and best practice recommendations from the Perceptyx consulting team. “Right now we’re updating the “Ways of the Carhartt Leader” program to incorporate a greater emphasis on inclusivity,” said Hicks. “We’re looking forward to leveraging the partnership with Perceptyx to gauge performance on the seven core competencies and monitor the impact of the updates we’re making to the program. We feel good about where we are—and where we’re going.”
Though the relationship with Perceptyx started only recently, it has proved all the more valuable through the COVID-19 pandemic, and Carhartt is already reaping benefits from its focus on the associate experience. The company’s commitment to expanding its listening program and taking action on associate feedback is living up to the company motto. Given Carhartt’s focus on continuous improvement, that commitment is sure to keep the company on a solid footing well into the future.
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In 1889, Hamilton Carhartt started manufacturing clothing for working men in a small Detroit loft with a philosophy of, “Honest value for an honest dollar.” Today, 132 years after its founding, Carhartt, Inc. is still family-owned and operated, and known for its durable work apparel—but most other aspects of the business have changed.
The business that began in a cramped loft is now a global company, with more than 5,600 associates and operations in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe. In recent years, Carhartt has expanded its direct-to-consumer footprint by adding 34 company-owned retail stores and launching a robust Carhartt.com e-commerce platform. In addition to growing its D2C business, Carhartt is now available at more wholesale retail locations than ever before and can be found in Europe alongside its Work in Progress (WIP) label. And as of 2018, Carhartt offers a uniform program called Carhartt Company Gear to outfit small and large businesses.
Carhartt—whose mission is to build rugged products to serve and protect hardworking people—continues to manufacture premium workwear for those who rely on its tried-and-true products while providing the latest purpose-built gear for the next generation of hard work.
Headquarters: Dearborn, Michigan
Industry: Apparel manufacturing; retail operations
Number of Employees: 5,600+