Keeping Abreast of Employee Opinion

By Barnes, Peter C. | Management Services, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Keeping Abreast of Employee Opinion


Barnes, Peter C., Management Services


British workers are more dissatisfied overall with their working life than those in 17 other European countries according to ISR Limited a management consultancy with an international clientele specialising in staff opinion research. Only workers in Hungary register a lower level of satisfaction. The consultancy also reports that levels of dissatisfaction in the UK rose between 1990 and 1998 and is especially high in relation to intrinsic job satisfaction, job security and the perceived performance of employing organisations in terms of efficiency and product quality. Such an assessment is disturbing given the now widely acknowledged view that people are the key factor in competitiveness. This article looks at the case for measuring employee attitudes, views the relative importance of surveys as a means of obtaining employee feedback and the matters they explore, draws attention to some of the issues that arise when using surveys and points the reader in the direction of further information on external agency support.

The case for measuring employee attitudes

In recent years there has been a rethink about what measurements of business performance are relevant in today's highly competitive conditions. It is argued that traditional financial measures reflect the quality of yesterday's decisions and not contemporary value creating actions important for success in the future and the long-term. Furthermore, "what gets measured gets attention" and companies need to identify and measure those aspects which are important in operational spheres and relate to for example employee and customer satisfaction and production if purposeful management is to raise performance. The need is said for there to be a `balanced score-card' which reports performance against target for all important aspects of operation to avoid suboptimisation.

Interestingly there is evidence that employee surveys are used with strategy in mind. The CEO's and directors of The Times Top 500 companies were asked about their usage of employee opinion surveys2 and their motives for introducing them. Responses revealed that the most important reason was "as an aid to senior management decision-making" with "to check the current situation in the organisation" and "to indicate concern for employee welfare and feelings!" following.

Employee surveys and other approaches

In principle, employers have a number of channels available for tapping into employee attitudes and opinions. The straightforward path makes use of reporting up the line via appraisal arrangements or by making upward reporting common practice at all levels. Unfortunately, 'political' factors frequently intervene and inhibit upward communication and organisations are insufficiently 'open' to make `the line' a reliable channel. Similar problems occur with open-focus groups, staff newspapers and team briefings. Employee surveys have an important role to play in less than 'open' cultures alongside confidential 'hotlines' and suggestion schemes.

An impression of the relative importance of the approaches available to obtaining employee feedback may be gained from The Times Top 500 survey referred to above. On the basis of the replies received, the channels used were in descending order of importance:

Almost all (98%) of the responding companies used appraisal and interviewing while 76% carried out employee surveys. The position in these companies is that use is made of a multiplicity of channels and the opinion survey is commonly used. A more recent study by the MCG Consulting Group3 found that 56% of the 265 respondents (companies contributing to MCG's database) had or were about to implement an attitude survey and the instrument as a normal part of the HR toolkit.

Issues surveyed

Surveys are used on a `one-off, 'periodic' or 'regular' basis and in some organisations formally integrated into the annual operational planning cycle. `One-off surveys may be carried-out for example if the organisation is planning or undergoing a major change or merger.

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