Making Job Satisfaction Surveys More Useful: Job Satisfaction Surveys Can Help Managers Identify and Prioritize Problems, Develop Solutions, and Track Trends

By Amitin, Ken | The Public Manager, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Making Job Satisfaction Surveys More Useful: Job Satisfaction Surveys Can Help Managers Identify and Prioritize Problems, Develop Solutions, and Track Trends


Amitin, Ken, The Public Manager


"Americans of all ages and income brackets continue to grow increasingly unhappy at work--a long-term trend that should be a red flag to employers," states a 2010 research report released by The Conference Board. The report goes on to say that "the downward trend in job satisfaction could spell trouble for employee productivity and negatively affect behavior and retention."

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Job satisfaction is a growing concern for public managers, and satisfaction surveys are a useful tool for organizational improvement. Managers count on survey responses to identify and prioritize problems, develop solutions, and track trends. But recently, many government organizations have reported substantial declines in survey response rates.

Federal Human Capital Survey

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) reported a 51 percent return in its 2008 Federal Human Capital Survey, as compared to a 57 percent return in 2006--a 6 percent drop. The survey gauges the attitudes and impressions of employees, including job satisfaction. OPM administers the survey to a sample of full-time permanent employees from more than 75 government agencies whose combined numbers represent approximately 97 percent of the executive branch workforce.

Indeed, fewer employees choose to participate in surveys, and based on comments, it appears that many participate reluctantly. "Oh no, not another survey," is a sentiment frequently overheard in the hallways and at the water cooler. While research is needed to determine precisely why people choose not to respond to surveys, the following factors appear to contribute to the problem.

Perception that Surveys "Won't Help Me"

In response to survey data, organizations are accustomed to developing and implementing broad improvement actions that are applicable to all or most of the workforce. Instituting policies such as teleworking, casual dress day, and flextime are good examples.

However, most work satisfaction concerns require an immediate response that is best addressed and resolved between the employee and manager. For example, employees may need more reasonable and realistic due dates, approval for training, updated equipment, timely information, opportunities to work on a variety of projects or focus on a single task, simplification of a cumbersome procedure, and feedback and direction. Unfortunately, these and other job satisfaction concerns frequently go unresolved or ignored.

When survey time rolls around, many employees are already disengaged. There's the attitude that the survey might help the organization better understand and address corporate issues, but it will do little, if anything, to address their specific and personal workplace concerns. A response often heard: "Why should I take the survey? It's of no direct help to me."

Survey Questions with Unlikely Payoff

Employees tend to disregard such survey questions as, "I am satisfied with my level of compensation," or "Career advancement opportunities are important to me." They intuitively know that their organization is unlikely or unable to make any changes as a direct result to survey responses, which exacerbates the perception that surveys won't help them personally.

Further, questions like these tend to raise false expectations or elicit biased responses. For example, "If I agree, I might limit my compensation and advancement opportunities. If I disagree, I might influence the organization to raise the compensation level and advancement opportunities for me and others at my level."

Rating Scales that Limit Expression of Concerns

Many surveys incorporate a "neither agree nor disagree" neutral rating scale option. But this choice seems illogical for many items, such as

* "My work gives me a feeling of personal accomplishment."

* "My workload is reasonable."

* "I have trust and confidence in my manager. …

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