Magazine article Training & Development

Tough Times; Straight Answers

Magazine article Training & Development

Tough Times; Straight Answers

Article excerpt


Jan Dellenbeck, vice-president of human resources for a large manufacturing company, was preparing to conduct an employee survey. Five weeks before she administered the survey, Jan was called into an emergency meeting and told that the company would cut staff by 10 percent in two weeks. The president of the company was concerned about the timing; he asked Jan whether the company should administer the survey as planned or delay it.

This scenario occurs with increasing frequency. Most executives respond by delaying the survey and hoping that things will settle down. But in today's turbulent business environment, things don't always settle down; a six-month delay can stretch to a year, and then to two. One company rescheduled its employee survey for five years; the company's managers never found what they considered a good time to survey employees.

No perfect time

There are no perfect times to administer employee surveys, but there are better and worse times. Sometimes it makes sense to reschedule surveys. Sometimes, you just need to press on, despite less-than-optimal conditions.

In the case of Jan Dellenbeck's company, downsizing one week and administering an employee survey the next sends contradictory messages to employees. Some managers, to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy, would decide to postpone or cancel the survey.

The reality is that managers have to deal with the two issues concurrently. They have to be concerned about running an efficient, effective, and profitable business, as well as ensuring the welfare, morale, and success of theiremployees. Managers never can sacrifice one for the other, or they will decrease their effectiveness.

If difficult conditions prompt you to delay a survey that employees expect, you might make a bad situation worse. Imagine the conversation in the halls when employees learn that the employee survey has been postponed. One employee says, "I knew things were bad, but did you hear they just canceled the employee survey?" Another responds, "Yes, this must mean the worst is yet to come."

If you delay a survey, have a good reason. And clearly communicate that reason to employees.

Avoiding bad news

Some managers assume that negative events will poison employee attitudes and skew survey results. That won't happen if surveys are constructed correctly.

A negative event significantly affects the way employees respond to survey items directly related to that event. At Jan's company, for example, the layoff would greatly affect how employees respond to the item, "I expect to be laid off or transferred to a less desirable job." But research shows that the layoff probably would not substantially affect items that address other measures of working conditions, such as supervision, pay, and career satisfaction. If an employee survey places a recent, stressful event in context, it can produce valid measures of employee attitudes. Managers can soften the impact of an unpleasant event by using a survey to face the situation squarely and encourage employees to give their feedback.

One company that took this approach introduced its survey with the following statement: "We have had a difficult year. Some of our friends and co-workers have lost their jobs, and we sincerely regret that we had to lay off employees. It is time, however, for us to regroup; we need to be more effective and efficient than ever. …

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