Another Look at Employee Surveys

Article excerpt

Are you looking for new ways to collect confidential employee opinions and make use of them? Take another look at a traditional method. That old employee survey has some new twists.

What's new with the old concept of surveying employees for their ideas? Plenty! Recent innovations may make the employee survey the centerpiece for modern concepts of empowerment, feedback, and participative management. Let's take another look at employee surveys and discover how they meet the new needs of the 1990s.

The purpose behind employee surveys is to solicit worker perspectives about how a company is doing. Employees often have viewpoints that can move the organization to new heights and counterbalance the all-too-frequent "business-as-usual" comfort of many managers.

Why don't employees tell management what they think in the course of day-to-day operations? Some do. But they may not be taken seriously, partly because managers have no way of knowing if a few assertive voices actually represent most employees. Many employees are afraid to speak out, because they assume their comments are unwanted or will come back to haunt them.

For example, in recent surveys of employees at several organizations, only 29 percent to 41 percent of workers agreed with the statement, "We say what's on our minds without fear of attack or reprisal."

Employee surveys were devised to help management discover what employees really think. Typically, they are written questionnaires with mostly multiple-choice items. Most surveys are completed anonymously by all employees or a "representative sample" of employees, and then are tabulated by demographic groups.

Surveys have provided important information to management for some time, but several factors account for their recent popularity in organizations. More sophisticated strategic planning, customer satisfaction, and quality-improvement techniques now stress internal as well as external data-gathering. Also, the growing mobility of workers and the tight labor market (while lessened during the recession) have sparked managers' interest in employee satisfaction. Widespread downsizing has raised issues of employee morale and loyalty.

Several major problems have emerged with the administration and analysis of employee surveys:

* When a survey is anonymous, it's difficult to get a high return rate. When it is not anonymous, the reliability of answers is questionable because employees may be afraid to tell the truth.

* "Check-mark" answers sometimes raise more questions, rather than providing useful data. But narrative answers may be too cumbersome to categorize and tabulate.

* Too often, management does nothing with the results of a survey; at least, employees perceive no change.

* Long time lapses between the completion of surveys by employees and the implementation of changes by management weaken the tool and any reactions taken in response to its findings.

* Traditional questionnaires are one-time measurements of employee feelings about specific factors such as their jobs, supervisors, and pay--rather than perceptions about the broader business developments that are important to companies.

Several recent innovations have reduced the problems associated with traditional questionnaires, and have increased the benefits of employee surveys to organizations.

An ongoing process. The days of the "once-and-done" survey are over. Why solicit employee ideas only once? What about employees who join the company after a survey? How do we know if progress has been made since the last survey? Periodic, regular communication with employees makes more sense.

Surveys are increasingly part of management's overall planning and development strategy, providing regular information for decision making--like financial and customer reports. The new major players in the survey game--line supervisors and managers--want to know how the business is doing from the employees' perspective. …