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Employee Surveys: Ask the Questions, and Be Prepared to Respond

Sid Scott

June 2004

(Sid Scott)Many organizations conduct surveys of their employees, but just as many never ask employees for feedback on the workplace. Called employee attitude surveys, employee surveys or employee culture surveys, these surveys can help companies determine strategies, assess leadership and supervisor performance, evaluate satisfaction with compensation and benefits and judge overall morale. In many cases, employee surveys are a one-time event, but enlightened companies conduct them on a regular, periodic basis. While surveys can surely be a great aid to companies, we should be prepared to answers/respond to any and all comments and questions.

Why May We Want to Survey Employees?

The impetus to survey employees primarily comes from the fact that the leadership and managers in most organizations only hear a small fraction of what employees think and feel about things. And, if those in positions of authority are privy to comments, there is a risk that they are only hearing anecdotes from a vocal minority who may have an agenda and who are likely not representative of a cross-section of the workers. Even in the very small number of participative, egalitarian organizations where "true openness" is encouraged (not an "open door policy" which is very often a way to control and suppress rather than support a free flow of communication) a broad, confidential survey of employees can uncover problematic situations and generate good suggestions. Luckily, the percentage of participative companies is much higher in the employee ownership community.

Another reason to conduct periodic surveys is that the act itself of asking for comments and input can have a positive effect on morale. When surveys are conducted and proper follow-up is part of the process, employees will feel that they have been listened to and that the leaders of the organization truly want their opinions and suggestions.

The momentum to implement surveys typically comes from human resources professionals who may have to "sell" the idea to other leaders. However, the best results are obtained when open-minded leaders who do not fear constructive criticism universally encourage and support an employee survey.

How Do We Conduct an Employee Survey?

The best way to conduct a survey is to enlist the help of an experienced, outside organization, one that is preferably familiar with your industry. To be successful, the employees must be assured that their responses and comments will be held in strict confidence. Not only must their anonymity be protected, but they must also feel that no retributions will come from candidly speaking their minds. Unfortunately, many employees may have found that candor, even when the truth has been spoken, resulted in a personal penalty or reprimand rather than a reward.

There is a tendency to try to use inside resources in order to save money, but the trade-off is not only a less-than-open response, but it may also place those who are selected to process responses in an awkward, untenable position of balancing privacy needs with the desire of leaders to find out who said what. The risk of trying to do a survey internally is best illustrated by a story I heard about a president who sent an email survey to all employees asking for comments on very specific programs being championed by top management. When he received criticism and suggestions that indicated less than universal acceptance, he stated that this was the last time he would ask employees about anything of importance. How do you think his employees felt about open communication and the willingness of leadership to listen?

The outside organization can help your organization develop the survey questions, help design the process of sharing the results and also offer ideas on how to respond to the comments and suggestions from the broad workforce. There are NCEO member firms that have the skills and experience to help.

What Do We Do with the Results?

If we ask questions of others, we must be prepared to do something with the results-otherwise, why ask? We have three major choices of actions (and some modifications of these three) that we can take with the results of the survey. We can do nothing and leave things the way they are, let managers make decisions and tell (or not tell) others what they decided, or we can share results broadly, get input from employees and let appropriate groups-committees, task forces, and teams address the situations. The first option is the least costly in time, but may prompt undesirable short-term and long-term consequences. Interestingly, there used to be an estimate that about half of all research was and is done to confirm the beliefs held by those authorizing the research. In my opinion, this is a risky approach with employee surveys. I have never been involved in an employee survey where no good ideas and suggestions came forth. We ignore these good suggestions at our own peril.

The action taken with survey results will be a reflection of your organization's culture and decision-making style. That might prompt a top-down organization to use the second approach where managers make decisions on the survey results without further involvement by the workforce. As you might surmise, I prefer the third option-a broader, more costly in time and resources, involvement approach, but each organization must weigh the cost versus the benefit. In any case, employees will expect something to come from being asked for their opinions and suggestions.

How Often Should Companies Conduct an Employee Survey?

I believe that periodic employee surveys are an excellent way to get a pulse on the culture and assess morale. Annual surveys are conducted in some organizations, while others do surveys every two or three years. The frequency is best determined by factors such as your organization's turnover rate, whether significant changes have taken place (mergers, acquisitions, downsizing, etc.) and the general acceptance of how often the questions should be asked. If the same questions are asked over several surveys, then a database of results can be compiled to serve as a benchmark to compare results.

A final thought. There is a saying among survey professionals that goes like this: "Don't ask the question if you are not prepared to deal with the answer." Making a decision to survey your employees (or your customers or anyone else) is a serious decision that must be made with end in mind. Ask, but be prepared to act, too.
About the Author

Sid Scott is the former vice president of human resources for Woodward Communications, Inc., a multimedia corporation located in Dubuque, Iowa. Woodward Communications has been an ESOP company since 1992. He has served on the NCEO's board of directors and is a frequent presenter/facilitator at conferences. He has a MBA from Bradley University and a BS in liberal arts from Illinois State University, and he has been a faculty member at Clarke College in Dubuque and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

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