The Seven Deadly Sins of Employee Attitude Surveys

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The Seven Deadly Sins Of Employee Attitude Surveys By avoiding the seven pitfalls described in this article, HR managers can conduct employee attitude surveys that represent an opportunity rather than a threat to other managers.

Employee attitude surveys have recently enjoyed such consistent popularity that they have quietly become an established part of American corporate life. There are, of course, good reasons for their use: They give HR managers insight into what employees are thinking and, in the process, afford employees an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings without the constraints of the immediate work environment--that is, a chance to communicate with that elusive abstraction known as the "organization." The last 25 years of attitude-survey data can tell HR managers a lot about how employees and their institutions have developed as productive entities and provide clues about where they are going.

If employee attitude surveys offer such valuable benefits, why should anyone be impressed by their enduring usefulness? Simply because the sins committed in the name of conducting these surveys could easily have sunk the entire technique years ago.

I have found seven such sins committed with a certain regularity at various points in the process. Together, they form a sort of developmental cycle that characterizes managers' defensive reactions while conducting this kind of survey.

Sin #1: False Commitment The most serious of these seven transgressions involves the degree of commitment throughout the organization to the survey process. There are two components to this issue.

First, HR managers must understand the reasons other managers in a company want them to conduct a survey. Some want to establish that the department they inherited was a "shambles" and they are therefore not responsible for its problems; other managers want to show that employees are currently expressing greater satisfaction than they did during a predecessor's tenure.

Second, a manager may not be willing to do all that's necessary to ensure the success of an employee survey process. It's not unusual to find managers who are unwilling to follow through on such critical issues as employee feedback or action planning.

Unfortunately, even the manager may not realize at first how committed he or she must be to the survey process. Therefore, in addition to a discussion of the rationale and objectives of a survey, an in-depth review is essential to ensure the manager understands the process completely.

Sin #2: Unwarranted Optimism Managers tend to view job satisfaction as a black-and-white issue. They assume employees who are essentially satisfied with their jobs have no "gripes" about anything they'd like to see improved. Thus managers often approach an employee attitude survey with unwarranted optimism and cannot understand most of the negatives expressed by employees in the survey context.

This attitude is sometimes reinforced by managers' lack of first-hand knowledge of conditions in their own departments. If there are few complaints, it's all too easy to assume the employees are satisfied.

In discussions with other managers about a prospective employee attitude survey, HR managers should view a high degree of optimism regarding results as a danger signal to be explored further. If the optimism springs more from ignorance than from fact, the manager will require a thorough orientation to establish an appropriate perspective and reasonable expectations.

Sin #3: Perceptual Confusion Although marketing professionals understand very well that employee perceptions should be treated as reality, managers don't always show the same understanding. Faced with employee perceptions that are at odds with their expectations, managers often conclude that employees "have it all wrong." As one might expect, managers tend to equate their own perceptions with reality and are reluctant to consider an employee's viewpoint; this attitude usually creates resistance to dealing with issues that are all too real for employees. …