Employee Surveys: Ask the Right Questions, Probe the Answers for Insight

By Greengard, Samuel | Workforce Management, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Employee Surveys: Ask the Right Questions, Probe the Answers for Insight


Greengard, Samuel, Workforce Management


Used properly, they can help identify gaps between a company's goals and actual policies

A COMPANY CAN ASK any number of sources to rate how well it's doing. Customers, shareholders, the business media and Wall Street all have opinions that they're only too happy to share.

But whether companies really want an honest opinion from their employees is another question. Eaton Corp., a Cleveland-based industrial manufacturing firm with 55,000 employees worldwide and $8.1 billion in 2003 sales, wants the straight story-and not just about such quick-fix issues as parking or the quality of vending-machine fare.

Three years ago, the firm developed a global employee survey in 21 languages that gathers information in several areas, including business ethics, values, employee engagement, employee relations, manager effectiveness and strategic vision. The company uses software from Kcnexa to facilitate the process.

"The responses from our employees really do drive action, and they are as much a component of our business as strategic, financial or succession planning," says Susan Cook, vice president of human resources at Eaton. "It is critical to helping us examine and improve how we operate our businesses. The Eaton Employee Survey is no longer an HR program-it's an operational tool."

Even when the news isn't positive. Although Eaton has formal or informal recognition programs in place at 90 percent of its locations, some employees taking the firm's 2003 survey did not agree with the statement, "I receive recognition when I do a good job."

As a result, the company is developing a new global recognition and reward program that it will introduce in 2005. The program will use Web-based technology to provide recognition training for supervisors and allow all employees to participate in the recognition process. Utilizing common standards, supervisors will be able, within predetermined authority levels, to provide employees with immediate tangible rewards for a job well done.

In addition, all employees will be able to provide fellow workers with an immediate expression of thanks when they wish to acknowledge their performance.

David Snyder, a senior vice president at Aon Consulting in Chicago, says that employee surveys have the power to transform an organization. However, if there's a mismatch between attitudes and policies, productivity can sputter. "The challenge is to understand where you're at and what needs to he done to effect change," he says.

It's a quandary that organizations are increasingly attempting to confront. Employee surveys, which have been around in one form or another for the last half-century have become de rigueur. Finding out what is going on in employees' heads and fashioning corporate policy and actions appropriately is a core concern.

"In recent years, there has been an uptick in interest in surveys across all industries," Snyder says.

Yet, more isn't always better. While the Web has made it easier to conduct elaborate surveys, many organizations continue to struggle with the process. In some cases, companies ask the wrong questions or do not put the data to full use. In other instances, they overload workers with questions or misinterpret the meaning of results and take the wrong action-such as introducing a new benefit based solely on popularity rather than what's best for the organization.

"There are many points where an organization can fall down in the survey process," says James Benton, an associate partner for Accenture's human services performance practice. "It's essential to put some structure around all the information."

A growing number of organizations are now questioning the survey process, and many are attempting to turn it into a science. When used effectively, employee surveys can help identify gaps between organizational goals and actual policies.

They can help an organization achieve higher retention rates, lower absenteeism, improved productivity, better customer service and better morale. …

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