Do you know what your employees think?

by Don Hendricks, CIRAS

Many organizations are surveying their employees about a variety of things. Attitude surveys have been around for a long time. Most surveys now are a mixture of attitudes, job functions, improvement opportunities, supervision, benefits, relationships, quality, customer relations, employee involvement, empowerment, teamwork, strategic issues, and more.

Survey applications

Surveys help in establishing priorities for making changes, especially when resources are limited. Surveys provide the means for systematic—that is, planned—data gathering so employers don't have to rely on anecdotal or hearsay information and can make better, data-based decisions. Because surveys also help identify problems or concerns of employees, they can lead to joint action for solutions by employees and management. Getting a good feel for what is going on within the organization improves leadership. A well-designed survey will also help pinpoint problem areas where you may be able to apply local solutions. Overall, survey results, when acted upon, will lead to increased employee satisfaction and productivity.

Some organizations conduct surveys on a regular basis to track progress on issues that affect the entire organization. This allows for comparisons of the past with the present. A survey can also help compare the present with a desired future. This helps set objectives for change and allocate resources where they are most needed. Surveys can help you gather information about a specific issue, such as fringe benefit changes, new organizational initiatives, or direction changes.

Management commitment

As with many activities in an organization, top management commitment to conducting the survey and taking some action as a result is essential. So managers need to respond with a solid "Yes" to several questions:

  • Am I willing to invest time and money to ensure a quality survey?
  • Am I willing to share the results with all employees?
  • Am I willing to take action on the basis of the survey results?

Top management should be involved in all initial planning of the survey, especially in the broad subject areas. Others can develop specific questions for each area.

Survey process

The survey instrument itself should be customized to fit your needs. You should be trying to meet specific organization objectives and use the survey to help achieve them. Most surveys are oriented internally, but standardized surveys are available to benchmark your organization against other organizations. Look for surveys that allow you to gather information over time, have a standard set of questions that provide an internal standardization, and will also allow you to insert new relevant questions about specifics.

An organization can conduct an external standardized survey and a customized survey. This allows for comparisons with other organizations and an internal comparison of the progress being made in selected areas. The purpose of the survey will determine the questions you ask, analysis methodology, kind of reports and who sees them, and who should administer the survey. Question design is very important; many mistakes are made in this phase of development.

Surveys should be pretested for internal reliability, relevance to the organization, ease in answering the questions, multiple issues in one question, wording, appropriateness of language used, anonymity of the person answering the questions, and ease of processing the answers. Part of the design process is deciding who will be surveyed, how to split the organization into meaningful, logical groups, and how to feed the information back to the organization.

Once the survey has been developed, it needs to be administered. This process should guarantee anonymity and be completed on company time. You want a response from as many people as possible, and group administration usually maximizes the response. The administration should occur over a short period of time, usually not more than a couple of days. Feedback of information should occur as soon as possible after the administration—ideally within 30 to 45 days. Feedback should first be given to managers so that they can make preliminary plans for handling anything that needs immediate attention and then management should provide feedback to all employees. This is a team effort. Results are usually presented in executive summary overview and in detail covering each question. Results should cover positive areas as well as problems.

Results and actions

Management should be able to respond to questions and to make statements about planned actions as a result of doing the survey. In fact, linking actions with the survey will help with the next survey. Even with anonymity, some people do not "tell all" until they see how management uses the data they collect. The survey should lead to action plans. Management commitment is extremely important at this stage because actions determine an employees long term commitment to the organization. Make sure actions are taken and that the actions are attributed to the results of the survey.

Generally, a survey takes from three to four months to complete for a small to medium-sized organization with one location. Cost varies considerably depending on who does what, number of questions, nature of administering the survey, outside help, time spent by staff and employees, first survey or follow-up survey, etc. Every survey conducted with management commitment has led to benefits far greater than the expenses. Sometimes the benefits are not seen right away because some things, like attitudes, change more slowly than other things like job content changes or procedural changes. Surveys should be repeated approximately every 18 to 24 months.

CIRAS News, Vol. 31, No. 4, Summer 1997